Submitted by andrew2  •  January 7, 2006

your call will be answered in the order it was received

I hear this all the time while in a hold queue on the phone, but it sounds like bad English to me. I would prefer “...in the order in which it was received”, although that does sound a little overwrought. I just can’t think of anything better. What do you experts say?

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I wouldn't worry about "that" or "in which", but rather about the logical issue that might make it sound strange: a single thing cannot be received in a particular order. "Your call will be answered in the order your call was received?"

Suggestion: Calls will be answered in the order they were received.

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Porsche,

Yes, I have stood in line. Standing in line is not impossible. Single people can be in line, I never said they couldn't however an individual thing can not be ordered meaningfully. Do this. Take an a coin from you pocket and put it on the table, now arrange that coin in order. Can't do it? That is because an individual thing can not (meaningfully) have an order. Strictly speaking you can. It is simultaneously first, and last as I said before. Now take out two coins and place the one with the most recent date stamp closest to you and the one with the earlier date further from you. Now there is an order. Only sets of things have order. So when someone said the order IT was received it makes not sense because you don't know its order in relation to what? To the birth of Christ? To the start of WWII, to the relation to the callers birth date? Of course not, it wants us to assume the order in relation to the time the other calls were answered but that is not stated and that is the problem with the statement. BTW it is "non sequitur." not "non-sequitor."

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Christian is 100% correct. "Your call will be answered in the order it was received" makes no sense. Multiple phone calls can be answered in a particular order, but one phone call can not.
Using coins, as Christian did: Lay three pennies (pretend they are phone calls) down on a table. Pick them up in the same order you laid them down. Easy. Pick them up in a different order than you laid them down. Easy. The concept of "order" makes sense with multiple pennies. Now lay only one penny (pretend it is "your call") on the table. Pick it up in the same order you laid it down. Easy. Pick it up in a different order then you laid it down. It can't be done. To say "your penny will be picked up in the order it was laid down" makes no sense because one penny can only be picked up one way. Only when other pennies get involved ("pennies will be picked up in the order in which they were laid down"), does it make any sense (no pun intended) to mention the order in which they will be picked up.

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I think there is a logical problem with the phrase. *A* call does not have an order (well even if it does it is always 1st, last and only), only a series of calls can have order. So a call can't be answered in the order *IT* was received, only in the order ALL the calls were received. My rework, "Calls are answered in the order received."

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I think you miss my point. Referring to a single item in a list, singly, does not imply that it is the only item. referring to "call" instead of "calls" does not in any way negate the presence of the other items. The word "order" still applies reasonably.

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No I do get your point. The problem is that your point is wrong. As I said twice, individual things cannot be meaningfully ordered. Your example was a good one, saying next in line refers to the LINE, a line is a set, that is a group of many individual things, in which the NEXT (thing/item/person) in that like makes sense.

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OK, how about this one? I just called the IRS. While on hold, I heard this exact comment: "our customers are answered in the order received" not "calls" but "our customers." Doesn't that sound odd? I didn't know the IRS receives customers over the phone. I didn't think they'd fit through the wires.

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No, you did not get my point. Referring to an individual thing in a context where other things exist is not the same thing as referring to an individual thing in isolation, nor does it imply that it is the only thing that exists. An argument that suggests such a reference is invalid because it necessitates the non-existence of the other items is itself specious. Oh, and you're quite right about non-sequitur.

Oh, and for what it's worth, one could make a case, at least as a mathematical abstraction, that a list with one item or even no items at all, zero, nada, still has an order.

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Christian, have you ever stood in line? Oh wait, by your reasoning, that would be impossible. Even if there are ten people in line, no single person can be in that line. It would be meaningless to say that someone is third in line since lines can only have people as group in it. Even the saying "next in line, please" would be a non-sequitor. Poppycock.

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Best alternative:

Your call will be answered in the order received."

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A call isn't received in an order. Only callS are received in an order. The singular is just wrong - and that's probably why it sounds odd.

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It's very interesting to see all comments about this simple message. I read all your comments but I couldn't really understand any of the reasons why some say it sounds awkward or it doesn't sound right. I actually find it pretty efficient: it's short, straight-forward, and understandable.

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I would like to suggest that, because they are possibly receiving calls continuously, that is, they are currently receiving your call, and have quite possibly already received calls, hence the necessity for this message, that a possible construction might be:

Calls will be answered in the order they are received.

or alternately:

Calls are answered in the order they are received.

The first implies that calls are not currently being answered, perhaps because the business is closed, while the second implies that they are diligently working on a continuous backlog.

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Now you're goofing with the intent of the message, which is to reassure the customer that they will soon be helped. It's now become - for the sake of grammar - a cold declaration. I can almost picture a man in a black suit with a gun saying it, and maybe tacking on the phrase "so you're just gonna hafta wait like everybody else." I like "...in the order in which it was received". Wordy suits me just fine.

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I would say that, invariably, when I am placed on hold by an answering service, the message says “your call will be answered in the order it was received”– and each time, I cringe at the missing words, and I actually correct the voice out loud (at the risk of being taken for a madman), shouting “in the order IN WHICH it was received!” into the phone. I don’t think that’s stuffy or wordy at all. Barring that, the only "quick fix" that I can think of would be to simply say "Your call will be answered as soon as possible"... When it comes down to it, what good is telling the caller that he's in a call queue if you're not saying how long the queue is? I would prefer the type of system that says "your wait time will be approximately 12 hours and 16 minutes"... Needless to say, if I receive multiple emails on this commentary, I will answer them in any order I damn well please!! Thanks!

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How about "your call will be answered after we answer all the other calls that were received before your call...was received"?

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What about:

Calls are answered in the order of their receipt?

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Neither the phrase "in the order it was received," or "in the order that/which it was received" is grammatically correct. The only correct way to say what you mean is "in the order IN which it was received." Your call is IN an order, or a line, if you will. It will be answered by someone IN a certain order, and that order is the one IN WHICH it was received. See how both "in's" are needed as prepositions? The word "which" is necessary to specify the particular order to which you refer. You could also say "IN the order IN which it was made." If you're standing in a line, you will be called IN the order IN WHICH you are standing. The active/passive issue is irrelevant. You would still have to say "we will answer your call IN the order IN which we received it" to be correct. The point is that both "IN" prepositions are needed, as they refer to two different relationships.

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You've got it! this phrase has been bugging me and now I know why, thanks to you. I think I can consolidate:

Step 1: Nail the logic (use the plural "calls");
Step 2: Use present tense (action is repeated or usual);
Step 3: (optional) Use the active voice.

"We answer calls in the order we receive them."

or, "We answer calls in the order that we receive them."

"Calls are answered in the order they are received" works too, but in most cases too passive IMHO.

Thanks!

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I think it's a matter of finding a compromise between "correct" grammar, simplicity, brevity, clarity, and direct reassurance to the caller that "your" call matters to us. All things considered, the commonly used "the order it was received" is a little grating to my ears as well, but understandable and, I hate to say, acceptable.

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When discussing the relative pronouns which or that, the rule indicates which is used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses and that is used to introduce restrictive clauses.

Whatever the rule, it is my opinion that both pronouns are overused. Take any writing sample and see how many times you could delete both pronouns and the implied and initial meaning remains unchanged. For example “I think he should post again” compared to “I think that he should post again.”

However, considering the phrase in question is referring to a specific call, I might suggest the following to be preferred: “your call will be answered in the order that it was received.”

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The reason that the expression exists the way it does is simple: the alternatives are too verbose and awkward. I'm fairly certain that "your call will be answered in the order that it as received" is every bit as "incorrect" as the original statement: the original statement was not missing the "that" (this particular use of "that" is optional, as in "here's the sandwich you wanted" vs. "here's the sandwich that you wanted"), it was missing an additional "in".

Understanding the grammatical problem with the sentence is a little bit easier when we simplify it. Keeping the "that" helps make the parts of speech a little clearer (i.e., it shows us what is modifying what), so I'll keep it. To begin with, the phrase after "that" is modifying "order," and following the normal rules of sentence construction, we should be able to take the noun being modified and create a new sentence with just the noun and its modifier. Awkward though it may be, we can say "your call will be answered in the order _x_. The order _x_ is the order that it was received." Suddenly it's clear what the sentence is missing.

Just to be convince myself that I'm doing this right, I'll take another couple of examples. One that's a little different might be this: "I want to ride in the car (that) you got for Christmas." This can be rephrased as "I want to ride in the car _over there_. The car _over there_ is the one/car that you got for Christmas." It's not quite parallel, because the phrase after "that" relates to the noun ("car") differently, but I believe both rephrasings are valid.

A real parallel would be "I want to ride in the car (that) George is in." This can be rephrased as "I want to ride in the car _over there_. The car _over there_ is the one that George is in." The parallel is that George is _in_ a car just as your call is received _in_ an order.

Going back to the original point, the only way to make the sentence legal is to make it significantly longer, or to make it awkward. Deciding between "in which" (as Andrew tried) or a terminal preposition ("your call will be answered in the order it was received in") isn't a fun choice in this case, and anything else would simply be too long (e.g., "your call will be answered as soon as we finish attending to all the calls that we received before yours"), so the companies favor the same option that the government uses when dealing with such problems: go for the shortest, best-sounding option that everyone understands. This explains such signs as "drive slow," "slow children at play," or "operator has no change under $20.00."

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This has always bothered me too, although I could never quite put my finger on why. Another one that strikes me as similarly odd is "objects in mirror are closer than they appear."

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I think I know what bothers me about this. It's that passive third person thing, You know, when someone says "the problem will be resolved by Thursday" instead of saying "I will resolve the problem by Thursday" because they don't want to take personal responsibility for the problem.

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The back and forth over whether it should be call or calls is silly, since 'your call' is singular, as it should be. Your call is in queue. It doesn't matter if it is one, or one of many. To use the penny example, place a penny at the end of a line, and it is appropriate to say that your penny (singular) will be picked up after the others, in order.

"Your call will be answered in the order it was received" is not inaccurate, or grammatically incorrect, no matter how it sounds to some ears. 'In which" is unnecessary, evidenced by the fact that 'that' could take its place (equally unnecessarily).

The real worry? Hearing the message on a 911 call.

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Too passive? The passive voice has nothing to do with passivity. It is simply a form of the verb.

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Regarding the unfortunate phrase "your call will be answered in the order it was received", I think many of the responses are putting too fine a point on this as well as missing the obvious fact that it is grammatically incorrect. The simple solution: add an "in" to the end of the sentence, thus making "your call will be answered in the order it was recieved in". Sure it's unwieldy, but as this seems to have become a part of the language now, getting folks to change the whole sentence, or even to acknowledge that it's wrong, might take some doing.

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1) "Your call will be answered in the order (in which) (it was) received" is terrible English, as shown by others here, because clearly an order refers to a series of things, not one single thing.

2) "Calls are answered in the order received" is correct English, but to appear personal, companies want to tell you about "your" call, not just calls in general.

3) "We answer calls in the order received" is also correct English. This option not only has the same problem as (2) above, but is even worse because the company becomes the subject of the sentence by the use of active voice. So this makes the sentence primarily about the company, rather than your call.

4) "Your call will be answered in turn" is, I think, this is the best solution.

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4) "Your call will be answered in turn" is, I think, the best solution.

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In the UK the answerphone service tells us that we were called at such and such a time, then that "the caller withheld their number". One caller, but their number. Same unhappy clash of singular/plural as in your lines above. Sounds terrible - but they never thought that grammar mattered when they recorded it.

(By the way, who cares about a missed call, if the caller's number remains unknown? Why would we want to know that a mysterious stranger called at all?)

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@Brus - what you are referring to is "singular they", and may be an "unhappy clash of singular/plural" to you, but for many of us is a much more elegant solution than "the caller withheld his or her number".

There is nothing ungrammatical about singular they, just as we use "you are" with singular meaning, and it is the natural follow-on to impersonal pronouns such as "anybody, everybody" etc - "If anybody calls when I'm out, ask them to leave a message". This is absolutely standard in British English when the sex of the person is unknown, and is used for example in passport application forms. It is also pretty common in American English too; even AP have now dropped their objection to it.

What's more, singular they has a long and illustrious history in English, going back at least to Chaucer (and long before political correctness, before you bring that one up) :

"And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, they wol come up ..."

and including:

Jane Austen - "I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly"
Thackery - "A person can't help their birth"
Orwell - "We can only know an actual person by observing their behaviour"

And it's even sometimes used when the person's sex is known:

"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me as if I were their well-acquainted friend" (Shakespeare)
"No man goes to battle to be killed. But they do get killed" (George Bernard Shaw)

I'm sorry that natural idiomatic English should sound so terrible to you.

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Ralph, this is indeed what was bothering me about it! I really like your alternative. Thanks.

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