A discussion about how to write 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.
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.