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Writing Dates

A discussion about how to write dates.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
January 7, 2016
Episode #498

Writing Dates

Can you believe it's already 2016? Another year gone. Since New Year's gets people thinking about the date, I'll answer a few date-related questions.

Pronouncing Numbers

Here's a question from a long time ago from a listener named Michael to get us started. (It will seem as if he's getting a little off track, but it will all make sense in a minute.)

[Listener question about dates and British English in wedding invitations.]

The reason Michael's question about British English in wedding invitations is relevant to how to pronounce dates is that as a general rule the year is pronounced “two thousand AND sixteen” in Britain and “two thousand sixteen” in America (1). That's the general rule; it's quite common to hear people use the and in America, although from the number of e-mail messages I get complaining about it, I'd say a lot of Americans have been taught that it's wrong.

So back to Michael's question, I believe the reason you see the year written as two thousand AND eight in wedding invitations is the same reason you see the other British spellings on invitations—Americans tend to think British English sounds more formal, and they want their invitations to sound special. Some people might consider it an affectation, but it's hard to fault people for doing something unusual when they're already walking around carrying flowers and dressing up in a suit or gown that's nothing like they'd wear in real life. There isn't much about weddings that is normal.

Back to dates.

Ordinal Numbers Versus Cardinal Numbers

There are two kinds of numbers you can use to talk about a specific day: an ordinal number and a cardinal number. Cardinal numbers represent amounts like one, two, and three. Ordinal numbers represent a place in a series like first, second, and third. I think of cardinal numbers as the numbers you see on playing cards.

When you're writing out a date like January 1, 2016 (in the American style), the day is written as a cardinal number. So you should never write January 1st, 2016. The weird thing though is when you're speaking, even though it is written as January 1, you say, “January first” (1). So when you are reading a date that is written January 1, 2016, you say “January first, two thousand sixteen.” That's probably why a lot of people get confused about how to write it.

The instance in which it is OK to use an ordinal number is when you are writing the 1st of January, because you are placing the day in a series: of all the days in January, this day is the first. For example, your invitations could say, “Please join us for a party on the first of January.” In that case, it's correct to use the ordinal number, first.

Commas and Dates

Next, there are some rules about commas and dates. When you're writing out a full date in the American style, you put a comma between the day and the year, so New Year's Day was January 1, 2016. (4) Different style guides make different recommendations about whether to put a comma after the year though. Some say to put a comma after the year in a sentence like January 1, 2016, was an exciting day (5, 6), and some say to leave the comma out after the year (7, 8). So check your style guide.

Starting a Sentence with a Year

And what about starting a sentence with a number? Although the general rule is that you shouldn't start a sentence with an arabic number—that you should write out the words instead— some (but not all (9)) sources make exceptions for years (10). Therefore, some people may object, but you wouldn't be completely out of line to write a sentence like 2016 will be the year I keep my resolutions, with 2016 written as a number instead of written out with words. Still, if you want to be safe, it's better to rewrite the sentence so the year isn't at the beginning.

Apostrophes and Dates

If you want to abbreviate the year, you can use an apostrophe to replace the initial two and zero, for example, writing, “What are your plans for '16?” If you want to refer to a whole decade, for example if you want to reminisce about the '80s, you write '80s with an apostrophe replacing the 19 and with an S at the end. I loved the '80s. And you don't need an apostrophe before that final S (11, 12).

Administrative Stuff

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Web Bonus Extravaganza

Calling Zero O

You can call years such as 2008 two thousand eight or twenty-oh-eight. I can hear some of you freaking out about both breaking 2008 into two separate numbers and using the word oh instead of zero, but I have three credible sources to back me up (1, 2, 3). Calling zero oh still bugs a lot of people, so I can't recommend doing it, but it's not incorrect. 

It is also acceptable to call zero oh when you are using it in a series of numbers (1). For example, it is common to call the interstate highway designated 101 the one-oh-one and we all call James Bond agent double-oh-seven.

The Naughts?

Jillian from Pennsylvania asked about referring to the 2000s as the aughts. It's one way that people do refer to the 2000s, but if you're going to go that route, the naughts is better.  Aught is commonly misused to mean naught according to Gardner's American English Usage (14).

People also refer to the decade as the oughts, which seems just plain wrong to me. The dictionary does list a “cipher of zero” as a definition for ought, but only as an alteration of aught, which is itself an alteration of naught. Perhaps fortunately, none of these names for the first ten years of the 21st century caught on much—Google searches produce a relatively small number of hits.

New Year's Day

Holidays are capitalized, so New Year's Day is capitalized. There is also an apostrophe before the s in Year's because it is referring to the day of the new year. When you use new year generically, then it is lowercase.

Grammar Girl Recommended Styles

  • 1980s
  • '80s
  • January 1, 2016 was an exciting day. (No comma after the year.)
  • Two thousand sixteen (In American English, pronounce the year without an and before the sixteen.)
  • Twenty-sixteen (An acceptable alternative pronunciation for the year 2016.)

Other Calendar Systems

The Gregorian Calendar is the most widely used calendar system today.

Alternative calendar systems include the following:
The Chinese Calendar
The Ethiopian Calendar
The Hebrew Calendar
The Hindu Calendar
The Islamic Calendar
ISO Week Date
The Julian Calendar
The Persian Calendar
(More)

(Thanks to listener Michael Spence for mentioning the Modified Julian Day and inspiring me to include this list of alternative calendar systems.)

References

1. “Numbers,” MED Magazine: The Monthly Web Magazine of Macmillan English Dictionaries. Macmillan Education, July 2004, Issue 21, http://tinyurl.com/2n8j45 (accessed December 27, 2007).

2. Freeman, J. “Numbers Game,” The Boston Globe, January 6, 2006. http://tinyurl.com/3atnbh (accessed December 27, 2007)

3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009, p. 75.

4. Aaron, J. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook, New York: Pearson Education, 2006, p. 73.

5. Christian, D., Froke, P., Jacobsen, S., and Minthorn, D., eds. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Associated Press, 2014, p. 168.

6. "Commas with dates," The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, section 6.45. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (accessed January 5, 2016, subscription required).

7. Strumpf, M. and Douglas, A. The Grammar Bible, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004,  p. 231, 217. 

8. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009, p. 226.

9. "The year alone," The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, section 9.30. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (accessed January 5, 2016, subscription required).

10. Christian, D., Froke, P., Jacobsen, S., and Minthorn, D., eds. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Associated Press, 2014, p. 284.

11. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 130.

12. "Decades," The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, section 9.34. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (January 5, 2016, subscription required).

Image, public domain via Wikimedia

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