Have you ever had to repeat yourself several times when giving your phone number in English?
After all, accuracy matters! You want to make sure the other person gets the right number so they can actually reach you.
How we say phone numbers varies from culture to culture and country to country.
When I moved to Argentina, one of the first things I learned was how to give my phone number so that people would understand it.
I remember being so surprised: in the US, we pronounce the digits of your phone number individually.
In Argentina, they use compound numbers, like twenty-three and forty-six.
Take a moment and think about how you say phone numbers in your country.
How many digits are in your cell phone number?
How do you break the numbers up in order to help people process and remember the number?
It’s a little more complicated than you would initially think, which is why it’s one of the first things I teach newcomers to the US.
Today you’ll learn how to say American and Canadian phone numbers with correct stress and intonation.
This is also an introduction to chunking, or breaking your words into digestible thought groups.
(And just a note, I have no idea how they say phone numbers in other English speaking countries. If you live in the UK, in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or any other English speaking country, leave a comment and let me know!
Understanding Phone Numbers in the US and Canada
First things first, let’s talk about the basics of phone numbers.
In the US and Canada, phone numbers are 10 digits long.
When calling internationally, we add the number one to the beginning: +1.
The first three numbers are the area code, which identifies the state or province.
Smaller states like Rhode Island have just one area code, whereas bigger states or highly populated states, like New York or California, might have dozens.
The second set of three numbers is the local exchange, which identifies your region.
The last four numbers identify your telephone line.
We write phone numbers like this:
- (123) 456-7890
This helps you see where we pause in order to break the phone number into smaller, more manageable chunks.
How to Say American Phone Numbers with Stress and Intonation
So now let’s talk about how to say phone numbers.
As I mentioned a moment ago, we say each number individually.
Most people will say “oh” instead of zero, probably because it’s faster.
The only numbers I can think of that we say differently are 800 numbers, which are toll free numbers. Those are numbers that were free to call before we had cell phones.
When saying phone numbers, we break them into four chunks:
- the area code
- the local exchange
- the next two numbers, and
- the final two numbers.
We stress the last number in each chunk.
To separate the chunks of numbers, we use holding intonation, or non-final intonation, and pause slightly after the first two sets of numbers.
This holding intonation signals that there’s more to come and we haven’t finished the number yet.
We use rising intonation after the third chunk, and then falling intonation after the final two numbers in order to signal that the phone number is complete.
Using stress and intonation in this way creates a sing-song-y, easy-to-follow rhythm and melody that helps the other person write down the number or remember it.
Practice Saying American Phone Numbers
Let’s practice with some examples. Take a look at this number here: 703-417-1315.
Identify which numbers you should stress, where you should pause, and how you would use intonation in order to make this number easy to understand.
(Remember that you can hit pause at any time on the video in order to figure it out for yourself.)
Here’s how to say this number:
- seven oh THREE (rise slightly)
- four one SEVen (rise slightly)
- one THREE (rise)
- one FIVE (fall)
You’ll need to watch the video to hear the correct stress and intonation, but you want to stress the syllables in BOLD and rise and fall in pitch as indicated.
As you can hear in the video, I’m gliding down to the end on that last number, creating falling intonation on the number five.
Let’s try another example.
Think about how to stress, pause, and use intonation on this number: 212-506-4321
Ready? Let’s go:
- two one TWO (rise slightly)
- five oh SIX (rise slightly)
- four THREE (rise)
- two ONE (fall)
Are you starting to hear the sing-song-y rhythm and melody when we say these phone numbers?
Here’s another example: 619-754-3211.
Once again, think about which numbers you’ll stress, where to pause, and how to use intonation to make this number easy to understand.
Here’s how to say it:
- six one NINE (rise slightly)
- seven five FOUR (rise slightly)
- three TWO (rise)
- one ONE (fall)
Once again, you can hear that I’m gliding down to the end on that final number.
Here’s a toll free number: 800-544-7345.
Think about which numbers to stress, where to pause, and how to use intonation to make it easy to follow.
Here’s the way to say this toll-free phone number:
- eight HUNdred (rise slightly)
- five four FOUR (rise slightly)
- seven THREE (rise)
- four FIVE (fall)
You may hear older generations add a one to that number and say 1-800: one eight HUNdred, five four FOUR, seven THREE, four FIVE.
Are you starting to get more comfortable with the rhythm and melody of these numbers?
Let’s try one more example: 702-327-8462.
Take a look at this number, identify which numbers to stress, where to pause, and how to use intonation.
- seven oh TWO (rise slightly)
- three two SEVen (rise slightly)
- eight FOUR (rise)
- six TWO (fall)
Stress, Pausing, and Intonation Makes Phone Numbers Easy to Remember
As you practice with these examples, I hope you understood how the stress, pausing, and intonation made it easy to understand the number.
It makes the number a little easier to remember and write down quickly.
Of course, you will probably notice that each individual person has their own style for saying phone numbers.
That said, you will be able to identify that:
- they stress the last number in each chunk
- they pause slightly between each thought group, and
- they use intonation in order to distinguish between the sets of numbers.
Listen for this pattern in how other people say numbers as well!
Make a list of important phone numbers like your cell phone number, your home phone if you have one, your work phone if you have one, and any number you may need to give quickly in an emergency.
Practice saying these phone numbers out loud with the right chunks, stress and intonation.
I hope this has made it a little bit easier for people to understand you when you’re saying these numbers.
Even if you don’t usually have to say American or Canadian phone numbers, I hope this has shown you how essential it is to break your ideas into more manageable chunks or thought groups.
If you want to speak more clearly and be more easily understood, you need to master English rhythm and melody through stress and intonation. These programs will guide you through the accent reduction process step by step. Learn more here.