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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2007年) Writing Dates (December 28, 2007)

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Episode 89: December 28, 2007

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 [apostrophe] '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).

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