How to Write Dates in English
One element of writing that can often throw non-native speakers for a loop is how to write out dates. There are three different basic formats out there—Day-Month-Year is used in most of the world, including the United Kingdom; Year-Month-Day is very popular in East Asian countries like China and Japan while most of the United States insists on Month-Day-Year. Not knowing which format you’re supposed to use, or which format you’re actually reading, can lead to confusion about dates “8/6/16”—do you mean June 8th or August 6th? In general, it’s best to write out the name of the month if there’s any confusion.
And that’s only the start of date- and year-related confusion—it can be a nightmare to cut through sometimes! Here are a few of the common pitfalls and traps people can fall into.
British English and American English tend to pronounce years differently. As I write this, it’s the year 2016, but how would you say that out loud, and how would you write that out? In Britain, you generally throw in an “and”—“two thousand and sixteen”—while in America, you generally don’t, and write “two thousand sixteen” with no “and”. There are some exceptions—Americans generally think that British English sounds more formal, so you’ll see the “and” popping up in things like wedding invitations and other important documents, but it’s very much an exception to the rule.
You’ll also hear people say “twenty-sixteen”. That’s alright in casual speech, and it follows the pattern of how you’d write older dates like “nineteen eighty-five”, but it’s not the way that it’s generally written out when doing formal writing.
Fortunately, you can skip around all of that mess by just typing out the year in numerals in most cases. You generally can’t start a sentence with Arabic numerals—you can’t write “1984 was a good year”, it would have to be “Nineteen eighty-four was a good year.” However, it’s perfectly fine to re-write the sentence so that the year appears somewhere in the middle, and write it like “My favorite year was 1984.” This is a grammatical convention that is changing—some style guides allow you to start a sentence with a number if and only if it’s a year. If you want to play it safe, however, avoid putting years at the start of your sentence if at all possible.
January 1st or January 1?
Another point of confusion comes when talking about how to write out dates. We use ordinal numbers when we’re talking—we mention “July nineteenth”, not “July nineteen”, which would be a cardinal number.
When writing, however, you generally use the cardinal number. So, if you were referring to a date in text, you’d write “November 5, 1605”, but you’d say “November fifth, sixteen-oh-five”. The exceptions to this rule, again, comes in more formal settings—for holidays like the fourth of July, or to announce you’re getting married on the fourteenth of December, it’s OK to use the ordinal number. Note that the day comes before the month there, even in American English—again, that’s because we tend to feel that British English feels more “formal”, so we use their rules there.
Also note that I used “November 5” and not “5 November”—that’s another difference between American and British English. Americans write the month first, followed by the day, while it’s reversed in the United Kingdom—and, honestly, most of the rest of the world. As long as you write out the full name of the month, you’ll avoid confusion and readers will be able to understand what you’re trying to day, but to American speakers, putting the month first feels more natural.
Dates can be tricky to punctuate, as well.
When writing out a full date in the American style, you always put a comma between the day and the year. Different styles, however, have different rules about whether or not to put a comma after the year—AP and Chicago ask you to put a comma after the year, while others ask you to leave it out. Check your style guide to make sure you’re following the proper rules in formal writing; in casual writing, it doesn’t particularly matter which way you write.
If you’re abbreviating a year or a decade, put an apostrophe to replace the initial two digits—so it’s ’16, and not just 16. If you’re writing about a decade, put an apostrophe at the beginning, but not before the final S—so ‘80s and not ‘80’s.
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