“Calls will be answered in the order they are received”

Can you spot the grammatical problem with this familiar sentence?  Yeah, me neither.

A sentence like that one came up at work, and our very fine editors were deeply disappointed with me when I didn’t understand what was wrong with it.

It seems that the “in” in the sentence is doing double duty.  The sentence should really go: “Calls will be answered in the order in which they are received.”  Or, if you don’t mind a preposition at the end of a sentence: “Calls will be answered in the order they are received in.”

This is the sort of nuance that separates the grammatical sheep from the grammatical goats.  And of course the Internet possesses all kinds of wisdom about it: here is one example.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls the phenomenon”cannibalism”–the first “in” has swallowed the second one.

I opined to the editors that this kind of “cannibalism” wasn’t that big a deal, and one of the editors opined back that it was “deplorable, repugnant, and vile.”  Tough crowd.

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8 thoughts on ““Calls will be answered in the order they are received”

    • Shut up. But that reminds me of something I learned at WGU: you’re supposed to put two spaces after a period. This turns out to be highly controversial nowadays, as well as being of critical importance to our nation’s future. Probably worth a blog post at some point.

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  1. It’s really a moral question. Once you start condoning prepositional cannibalism (it’s not so bad, everybody does it, most people can’t even tell) who knows where we’ll all end up–white shoes after Labor Day? Gay marriage? Confusing its with it’s? The end of poorhouses? Or even… unable to decide whether to put one or two spaces after a period? A bleak landscape as far as the mind can see.
    Your editor could perhaps have softened the tone. “Deplorable, repugnant, and vile” does seem overwrought. But with so much at stake, I can understand the response.

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  2. Pingback: Jibe talkin’ with honing pigeons | richard bowker

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