I’ve never met the head of the mathematics department here at the University of Bergen, but I already like him because he has a “head of department blog” that is exactly the kind of thing I think a head of department should do and yet I don’t seem to do it myself. I must have clicked some link on that blog by mistake because when time came to shut down all my programs so I can play World of Warcraft with as little computer-multi-tasking as possible, my address book was asking me if it should add this visit card. Belonging to the mathematician, “Karl Ove Hufthammer”, with the nickname “Huftis” noted and his homepage: huftis.org. Now this website seems to belong to a mathematics student, but you know, I had time so I went there, of course, and would you believe it, he has info on high-quality, free computer games, on XHTML and on how to correctly address letters to the US so they get to their destination as fast as possible.

My Christmas parcels took three and a half weeks to cross the Atlantic, and my letters routinely take 8 days while letters in the other direction only take five. So I had a look.

Turns out you should run your address through the official, computer-calibrated US address normaliser, leave everything in capitals and preferably use a computer to print your envelope so that its fellow computers in the US Postal Service can read the address more easily. And here I was thinking I wanted my letters to look human. Foolish. Human-looking addresses aren’t worth having your Christmas presents arrive in January.

I admit I did wonder what would drive anyone to write such a carefully crafted page about address normalisation of all things. The links at the bottom of the page to the hundred page manuals that exist on the topic give a hint, and the dry remark that accompanies the links more: “Personally I find a certain perverted joy in reading bar codes ‘by hand’.”

Anyway, letters from me to the US will henceforth be more precise, less human and faster.

9 thoughts on “have you heard of address normalisation?

  1. Radagast

    What’s on the head of department blog that you like so much? I can’t read a word of it …

  2. Yoram Chisik

    I actually have heard of address normalisation 🙂 In a previous incarnation I dealt with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and address normalization is quite big in that field. There is an awful lot of variance in the way people write addresses thereby causing no end of trouble to software systems trying to resolve the stuff. By write I mean the way in which they format the address, assuming all of them are printed on high DPI laser printers (which we know not to be true).

    Address normalisation is simply the act of trying to resolve all of this variety into a standard format which software can than use. This is of primary importance to routing people like postal carriers, people who run fleets such as repairman and anyone who needs to make house/office calls and marketing people although I am sure I have left some interested parties out.

    To compound matters, there is no universal normal address, each country has its own rules, and sometimes more than one set of rules (new rules enacted but old rules still in effect for a “couple” of years)

    Anyways the address normalizer link for the US you have does a good job as it has all of the info required and clear printing never hurt any OCR software I know of. To possibly add a bit of ooomph to your letters to the US you can add a delivery point barcode to your address. If you use Microsoft office it is supposed to do this for you, I try to restrict my dabbling in the occult but you can find the instructions here:


    If you need info on other countries, the postal services of a lot of them have web sites with info on how to properly structure an address.

  3. Elin

    I’m just wondering why Europe seem to get mail off fast enough and yet there is no such “system” in use? Or is there?
    The US postal services are famous for being quirky, lousy, unrelable and aggravating to deal with. If all our mail goes through the dumbo machines, I’m starting to understand why!

  4. Clancy

    I’d heard some years back that we were supposed to eliminate punctuation and lowercase letters from our addresses when we mail stuff, but I’d never heard it called “address normalization” before, and I didn’t know why this rule had been instituted.

  5. Steve Shimanek

    Ok, fair enough, you can pick on the US postal service in Norway; but if I ever hear a French person make the slightest remark about it I’m going to “go postal,” i.e. berserk. In a lifetime of sending and receiving mail in the US, I never had a single letter or package go astray; in France in two years, I’ve had nearly a dozen go missing (the digital camera I ordered was almost certainly stolen from a routing center; but the Little Red Riding Hood cloth diaper from the US, as well as the packages from the Netherlands, UK, Ireland, and France, remain unexplained). Oh, and hi Jill, hope you are well.

  6. Elin

    I’ve certainly had packages gone astray in the US. Astray, lost, delayed – you name it. Try calling them to sort it out – that’s about the worst thing you can do: Most of the time this confuses them further, and the package goes off in the complete opposite direction. Glad you had better luck..

  7. Yoram Chisik

    Just goes to show you that a computer or any other system is just as good as the people who design/maintain them. To really foul things up you need a human being. As for the US Postal Service in 10 years I have had no cause for complaint, which is something I definitely can not say about the postal service in Israel where delivery seems to depend entirely on the personal whim of the postal carriers, who may or may not feel up to the task and when they do opt to show up they may upon further reflection decide that leaving the mail for a four apartment building under a stone in the garden is an acceptable alternative to stuffing said items into the residents individual mailboxes.

  8. Claus

    > and on how to correctly address letters to the US

    I think that I got the idea, but do you know of a good online translation tool that translates this into English? (Google doesn’t support Norwegian > English.) I couldn’t find one myself.

  9. Jill

    No idea, Claus, sorry.

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