February 12, 2007

In the Order It Was Received

I was on hold just now, listening to the prerecorded voice tell me every thirty seconds that my call would be answered in the order it was received, and I wondered what the heck was going on in the grammar of that sentence. In colloquial English, there would be an “in” at the end, and in formal English, it would be “in the order in which it was received.” But instead the preposition was just missing.

What’s going on here? My instinct is that the speaker (or author of the line) is uncomfortable with that stranded preposition, but the traditionally correct alternative sounds so stuffy and wordy as to be unacceptable. Instead the preposition quietly disappears, like when children hide their vegetables or feed them to the dog instead of choosing between the unacceptable alternatives of either eating them or leaving them on the plate.

Unfortunately there’s not really a way to test this hypothesis. After all, when a word is missing, it doesn’t exactly leave an indication of where it went or why it went there, and most people are so unaware of their own linguistic impulses that you could never get a reliable response by asking people. Plus, I’ve found that most people don’t really like being cornered by linguists and interrogated about their missing words. I can’t imagine why.

Grammar, Usage 8 Replies to “In the Order It Was Received”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


8 thoughts on “In the Order It Was Received

    Author’s gravatar

    This post made me laugh. I especially loved the part about the vegetables. I have nothing constructive to add, though.

    Author’s gravatar

    One “in” is doing the job of two. Gower calls this phenomenon preposition cannibalism.

    […] into a relative clause, you don’t just forget about the in. Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry knows what I’m talking about. He and I are flexible here; you have more than one option for what to do with the in. You can […]

    Author’s gravatar

    Hmm. I think it’s possible to say “Your call will be answered in the order that it is received.” Also, try changing “receive” to make”.

    Author’s gravatar

    I don’t see what difference changing “receive” to “make” makes. You can make calls in an order or receive them in an order, but you can’t make them an order or receive them an order. The “in” has to be there, and when the phrase is relativized, it still has to be there. Neal’s explanation on Literal-Minded is much more through than mine.

    Author’s gravatar

    I absolutely agree– 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, saying “in the order IN WHICH it was received!” I don’t think that’s “stuffy” or “wordy” at all. If correctness must be sacrificed to avoid formality, then that’s a pretty sad statement about our current society. I feel that, in many ways, a return to even the most basic formalities would be quite refreshing in this day and age of “it’s all good” and “no worries” (2 modern expressions I absolutely hate!) Needless to say, if I receive multiple emails on my commentary, I will certainly answer them in the order IN WHICH they are received! Thanks!

    Author’s gravatar

    Responding to the comment left on October 30, 2012, at 2:06 p.m.:

    HOORAY FOR YOU!!! I do exactly the same thing, grinding my teeth when I hear “your call will be answered in the order *** it was received. IN WHICH it was received, please!

    Author’s gravatar

    Syntactically, you have correctly identified the problem as a missing preposition: calls are received *in* an order, not just “received an order.“ But there’s also a semantic problem. An order implies two or more items; a single call cannot be received in an order.

    This has a bit of the same flavor as another erroneous usage I’ve been hearing a lot lately, calling one thing “exponentially larger” than another. “Exponential” has a specific mathematical meaning; it doesn’t just mean “a whole lot.” Exponential growth applies to a *sequence* of values. It takes at least three elements to establish an exponential relationship, meaning that the third element of the sequence is equal to the second raised to the same power as the second relative to the first. It is mathematically meaningless to compare a single pair of values exponentially. (Or more precisely, *any* pair of values are related exponentially: 10.001 is exponentially larger than 10, by an exponent of approximately 1.000043427. The next value exponentially would be approximately 10.00200143.) People who say “exponentially larger” are just trying to sound sophisticated by throwing around a mathematical term that they’ve heard but don’t really understand.

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