Writing Dates

A discussion about how to write dates, just in time for New Year's Day.

Mignon Fogarty,
December 29, 2007
Episode #089

Writing Dates

Today's topic is dates.

Can you believe it's already almost 2008? Another year gone. Since New Year's Day gets people thinking about the date, I'll answer a few date-related questions. Stay with me, because there are a lot of fun web bonuses at the bottom of this transcript.

Pronouncing Numbers

Here's one 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 eight” in Britain and “two thousand eight” 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—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 someone 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.

Shockingly, it's also acceptable to say the year is “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. 

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.

When you're writing out a date like January 1, 2008 (in the American style), the day is a cardinal number. So you should never write January 1st, 2008. 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, 2008, you say “January first, two thousand eight.” That's probably why a lot of people get confused about how to write it.

The instance where 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 is January 1, 2008. (4) Different style guides make different recommendations about whether to put a comma after the year. Some say to put a comma after the year in a sentence like January 1, 2008, will be a fun day (5, 6), and some say to leave the comma out after 2008 (7, 8). I prefer to leave the comma out.

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, some (but not all (9, 10)) sources make exceptions for years (11). Therefore, some people may object, but you wouldn't be completely out of line to write a sentence like 2008 will be the year I keep my resolutions, with 2008 written as a number instead of written out with words. Still, if you want to be safe, it's better to rephrase 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 [apostroph '08?” 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 an s at the end. I loved the '80s. And you don't need an apostrophe before that final s (10, 12, 13).

Administrative Stuff

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Web Bonus Extravaganza

Oh Dear!

It is 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 have caught on—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 (as I did in the previous sentence) then it is lowercased.

Grammar Girl Recommended Styles

  • 1980s
  • '80s
  • January 1, 2008 will be a fun day. (No comma after the year)
  • Two thousand eight (Pronounce the year without an “and” before the eight.)
  • Twenty-oh-eight (An acceptable alternative pronunciation for the year 2008)
  • I will keep my resolutions in 2008./2008 will be the year I keep my resolutions. (Rewrite sentences to avoid starting with a numeral even if it is a year, but don't bother if doing so will make your sentence awkward or changes your desired emphasis. In the first example, the emphasis is on keeping resolutions this time. In the second example, there is more  emphasis on 2008 being a special year for keeping resolutions.)

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

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


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, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 73.
4.Aaron, J. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook, New York: Pearson Education, 2006, p. 73.
5.Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, Reading: Perseus Books, 1998, p. 134.
6. "Commas Needed or Omitted," The Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, section 6.46. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (accessed December 27, 2007).
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, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 222.
9. "The Year Alone," The Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, section 9.33. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (accessed December 27, 2007).
11.Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, Reading: Perseus Books, 1998, p. 232.
12. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 130.
13."Decades," The Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, section 9.37. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org (accessed December 27, 2007).

Image, public domain via Wikimedia

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