The dating game

flat lay photography of calendar

Some of the most confusing aspects of English style have nothing to do with sentences, words, or even letters, but numbers; for instance, the thorny question of when it is better to use digits (‘1…9’),  and when to use their written equivalents (‘one…nine’).

Even among experts, there is surprisingly little agreement on this particular conundrum, and it’s a question I’ll be addressing in greater detail another time. Today, however, we are concerned with dates.

First (or should that be 1st?) comes the question of whether dates should be written using cardinal (‘2’,‘3’) or ordinal (‘2nd’, ‘3rd’) numbers. There is no single answer here: both are valid in the grammar book. But to avoid any confusion, I always suggest using only cardinals.  So, rather than ‘14th of July’ or ‘14th July’, we prefer – for the sake of clarity – ‘14 July’.

Example:

‘He arrived in Paris on 14 July, just in time for the fireworks.’

In spoken English we would naturally expand this written form to ‘the fourteenth of July’ although it’s not uncommon in American English to hear ‘fourteen July’.  ‘Each’ or ‘every’ may also replace the definite article:

‘The French celebrate their independence every 14 July (‘every fourteenth of July’).

Secondly, there’s the question of word order. Why not ‘July 14’ rather than ‘14 July’? Again, usage is broad. While there is nothing incorrect in the date following the month, a leading date can be quite useful in avoiding confusion, because it lends itself to a format in which digits and letters can be neatly alternated, thus:

Thursday 14 July 2016’ (as opposed to ‘Thursday July 14 2016’, where all the digits clump together).  With this convention, it is also unnecessary to insert any commas.

Finally, abbreviated dates. British English leads with the date, followed by the month, then the year. This way, the shortest unit of time comes first, then the longer, then the longest. 14-06-16, or 14/6/16. The logic is unassailable.

By contrast, the American system of month-date-year is, frankly, weird; and it leads to many errors by clerks and copywriters the world over. There are many things to be commended in American stylistic convention, but this is not one of them.  It is high time the system was abandoned.