Decades or centuries

When referring to a general period rather than a specific year or range, it is fine to use either words or numerals. For example, thirteenth century and 13th century are both usually acceptable when talking about the century generally, but it would best to write 1233 CE or 1233 AD when talking about a specific event. Similarly, you could write ‘studies in the 1960s’ or ‘studies in the sixties’, but should write “studies from 1960 – 61” if the range is more specific. Note that ranges are linked with an en dash (–) rather than a hyphen (-).

Specific dates

When writing out specific dates, use one of the following formats

  • 3 May 2011 (British usage)
  • May 3, 2011 (American usage)

Writing dates in numerical format is not recommended because it may be harder to interpret especially since different countries have different systems for writing dates. For example, 04/07/2012 is 4 July 2012 with British usage, but is 7 April 2012 with American usage. Occasionally, a style guide may specify using a specific format, such as the ISO format (2012–04-28). As always, ensure consistency throughout a document once you have chosen an option.

Exercise 5 – choosing a format for dates:

1. Which is the best option?

(a) It was first discovered in eighteen seventy-three.
(b) It was first discovered in the nineteenth century.
(c) It was first discovered in the 1870s.
(d) It was first discovered in 1873.

2. Which are appropriate options?

(a) The twenty-first century broke new ground with technology.
(b) 2001 until now has broken new ground with technology.
(c) The 21st century broke new ground with technology.
(d) The 2000s broke new ground with technology.

3. Which are appropriate options?

(a) His lifespan was 3 May 1921 – 9 June 2000.
(b) His lifespan was 1920s – 2000s.
(c) His lifespan was from three May 1921 to 9th June 2000.
(d) His lifespan was from May 3, 1921 to June 9, 2000.

Answers to exercise 5:

1. (d) would be the best option as the reference is to a specific year. Spelling out the whole year as in (a) would be more difficult for readers. Being less specific, as in (b) or (c) would likely not be as useful for the reader as knowing the specific year of the discovery.

2. (a) and (c) would be appropriate as the phrase refers to the period generally rather than a specific range. (b) writes out the range, but it hard to read and the sentence likely is not intended to be so specific that we need to state 2001. (d) is unclear because it could refer to any year starting with 2 or only to the first ten years after 2000.

3. (a) or (d) would be appropriate as long as a consistent choice was made throughout the document. Since there are specific dates, (b) is too general. (c) has two issues since it spells out the number three in the date and also uses 9th instead of 9.

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