How to Refer to Time

By Mark Nichol

It’s time to talk about time: specifically, how to write references to units of temporal measurement. This post will note style for increments from seconds to centuries.

Time of Day

Imprecise times of day are generally spelled out: “six-o’clock news,” “half past one,” “a quarter to three,” and “eight thirty,” as well as “noon” and “midnight,” which are preferable to “12 pm” or “12 am,” because technically, these times are neither post meridiem (“after midday”) or ante meridiem (“before midday”). Another solution is to write “12 noon” or “12 midnight,” although the latter term could refer to either the very beginning or the very end of a given day.

The style for precise time is “12:34,” though one-hour increments can be written with or without double zeroes as placeholders: Write “1:00 p.m.” or “1 p.m.,” though the former style is often seen as punctilious.

Much of the world uses a twenty-four-hour clock system, so that the U.S. notation “1:23” is rendered almost everywhere else as “1323,” without a colon. This system is used occasionally in the United States, as in military and technological usage.

Months and Days and/or Years

References to dates consisting of the month and day require no comma (“October 10 is tomorrow”), but set off an appended year with commas (“October 10, 1960, dawned clear and bright”). (Don’t abbreviate the name of the month except in statistical arrays such as graphs and charts or to preserve direct quotations.)

A subsequent mention of a day of the month (in which the month is known but not expressed again), however, should be spelled out in ordinal form (“The 11th, by contrast, was dark and gray”); note that the ordinal should not be styled in superscript form.

Omit a comma before and after the year when the month but not a specific date precedes it: “January 2010 was an unusually wet month.”

A note to writers of American English: Keep in mind that much of the world uses day-month-year notation (“25 December, 2010,” and “25-12-10” as shorthand for that date), so make sure international readers are clear about which number-only notation you use.

Years

Years are almost always rendered in numerals. One major exception honors the convention of not beginning a sentence with a number, but it’s better to recast a sentence than to write, “Two thousand eleven began auspiciously.” Another end run around this problem is to precede the year at the beginning of a sentence with the phrase “The year,” but this strategy introduces nonessential wording and creates an inconsistency if other years are mentioned in the same content.

Years can also be abbreviated (“the spirit of ’76,” “the panic of ’29”), but note that the elision marker is an apostrophe, not an open single quotation mark.

Decades

Decades are displayed in numeral form or spelled out. However, no apostrophe is needed in the former style (“2010s,” not “2010’s”), although some publications retain this archaism. Do, however, precede the elided version of a decade with an apostrophe, just as in informal references to specific years, as mentioned in the previous post.

Phrases that include more than one decade generally use complete numbers for all decades (“the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s”)” but elision is acceptable in informal usage. Lowercase spelled-out versions (“the nineties”) unless the number is part of the signifier of a cultural era (“the Roaring Twenties”).

Ten-year ranges of decades are divided one of two ways: “2000-2009” (or “2000-09”), or “2001-2010” (or “2001-10”). If your writing project includes multiple references to decades and you mix decade ranges and spelled-out names of decades throughout, make your preference for when a decade starts known, and stick with it.

Note that the first two decades of any given century cannot logically or gracefully be rendered in numerals or words: “1900s” already applies to the entire century, and “1910s” is inelegant because the numbers between 10 and 20 do not have the same naming patterns as the larger numbers; meanwhile, “the oughts” (or “aughts”) and “the teens” are widely considered clumsy solutions.

Centuries and Eras

Spell out or use numerals for names of centuries consistently depending on what style you use for other periods of time, but lowercase the word century.

BCE and CE (“before Common Era” and “Common Era”) are acceptable secular alternatives to AD (anno Domini, or “the year of our Lord”) and BC (“before Christ”), but the traditional forms prevail. Note that syntactically, AD precedes the year, while BC follows it. (You’ll often see these abbreviations rendered in small caps — diminutive versions of uppercase letters — but this practice is fading in frequency.)

Also, although the second number in a range can usually be elided to two digits (“2001-10”), when used with BC or BCE, the full form should be used to avoid confusion because, in these cases, the range falls rather than rises. (In other words, “175-50 BC” is the full expression of a 125-year range, not one of a single generation in which the second number is elided.)

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26 Responses to “How to Refer to Time”

  • Stephen

    I was taught that, while you need a comma for dates in the form ‘October 10, 2010′, you don’t need a comma for dates in the form ’10 October 2010’, much the same way as you would not need a comma for just the month and year.

    As you mentioned, this may due to the difference between the month-day-year notation common in American English, and the day-month-year notation seen elsewhere.

    I have also seen times of day rendered with a period instead of a colon, but I don’t know why, or how common the practice is. Maybe it’s just wrong?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    With reference to the ‘Decades’ section above, the first ten years of the Twenty-First Century are popularly referred to as ‘The Noughties’ – in Britain at least.

    It sounds like the current decade may become known as the ‘Teenies’.

  • Marco Versiani

    With reference to the “Time of the day” section, the short form of “after midday” and “before midday” was written in two forms: as “a.m.” and “am”. May I use both forms?

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder about time. I often wondered if you had to write 12 noon or if you could write ‘noon.’

  • Bryan

    This is very helpful. This corrected a lot of my errors like abbreviating months. Thank you very much!

  • Debbie

    I would like clarification when writing a date like this…

    January 20th, 2011 — not correct. Correct?

  • Mark Nichol

    “I was taught that, while you need a comma for dates in the form ‘October 10, 2010′, you don’t need a comma for dates in the form ’10 October 2010′, much the same way as you would not need a comma for just the month and year.

    “As you mentioned, this may due to the difference between the month-day-year notation common in American English, and the day-month-year notation seen elsewhere.

    “I have also seen times of day rendered with a period instead of a colon, but I don’t know why, or how common the practice is. Maybe it’s just wrong?”

    Stephen:

    Correct — no commas are necessary in the European notation; the first comma in the American system serves to distinguish the two numbers, with a closing comma after the year for parenthetical effect; the date-first method omits both.

    As for time notation, I correct myself: The four-digit system does employ a colon (except in military usage; technological applications vary), and though I’ve seen a period used as well, it is not, to my knowledge, as common. (I live in the United States, so I’m unfamiliar with usage elsewhere.)

  • Steve – Kestrel’s Aerie

    As someone who spent twenty years in the Air Force, including three years assigned in (then) West Germany, it’s quite common in both the military and in Europe to see “24-hour” time indicated with a colon, both in print and in (electronic) signage: 23:45.

    I recall a train station somewhere in central Germany where the colon was actually embossed and painted, between the digital panels for the hours and minutes.

  • Alexander Davis

    24-hour time notations everywhere in the world do use the colon to separate hour from minute. There may be cases when colon is omitted, but I’ve never seen one, and I could not think of any reason for this (e.g. compare 1:10 with 110 [or 0110]; the latter would be really confusing).

  • Julie

    An oddity I’ve recently encountered is a date written as it would be spoken, i.e., “January 20th, 2011,” rather than “January 20, 2011.” As an editor, I always delete the “th” and tell my clients that a reader will automatically insert the “th” sound, even if the passage is to be read aloud. Am I right?

  • Mark Nichol

    “An oddity I’ve recently encountered is a date written as it would be spoken, i.e., “January 20th, 2011,” rather than “January 20, 2011.” As an editor, I always delete the “th” and tell my clients that a reader will automatically insert the “th” sound, even if the passage is to be read aloud. Am I right?”

    Julie:

    Yes, yes, yes!

    OK, I’ve calmed down now.

    Thanks for covering my omission of this point. Ordinals (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) have no place in date notations. By all means, use them in other references (“She finished 25th in the race”), but, yes, the convention (a long-standing one, I might add) is that the reader will supply the st and its friends without its inclusion in reference to dates.

  • Peter

    but it’s better to recast a sentence than to write, “Two thousand eleven began auspiciously.”

    Another note for Americans: every other English-speaker in the world would render that “Two thousand and eleven began auspiciously.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Another note for Americans: every other English-speaker in the world would render that “Two thousand and eleven began auspiciously.”

    Peter:

    Thanks for your note. Actually, many Americans would also include and, though most U.S. editors consider it extraneous.

  • Michael

    Thanks Mark.

    I understand that the use of CE and BCE has received criticism from some quarters because it’s, well, a bit of a cop-out. It purports to be secular, but really refers to the Christian Era, so one may as well write AD and BC. In my environmental history thesis, after some mental to-ing and fro-ing, I chose the latter.

    It’s funny that the usage of small capitals is falling out of favour given that modern word processors make them much easier to apply. (At least Pages ’09 does, not sure about Word.) They look better to me.

    I’ve remarked before that omission of ordinals is a matter of choice. Personally, I have no problem with them at all. They might seem superfluous but one could say that about an awful lot of English.

    How would you write years more than four digits in length? My Oxford manual suggests (e.g.) 2000 BC but 20,000 BC. Not sure if American standard uses commas in any case.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    Thanks for your thoughts. My responses are interspersed:

    “I understand that the use of CE and BCE has received criticism from some quarters because it’s, well, a bit of a cop-out. It purports to be secular, but really refers to the Christian Era, so one may as well write AD and BC. In my environmental history thesis, after some mental to-ing and fro-ing, I chose the latter.”

    I never thought of it that way; it really is specious, isn’t it?

    “It’s funny that the usage of small capitals is falling out of favour given that modern word processors make them much easier to apply. (At least Pages ’09 does, not sure about Word.) They look better to me.”

    Yes, they are adorable, but I’ve never been able to to get the Word function to operate. I think they have to be formatted in design programs, so most publications don’t bother.

    “I’ve remarked before that omission of ordinals is a matter of choice. Personally, I have no problem with them at all. They might seem superfluous but one could say that about an awful lot of English.”

    It does seem odd to arbitrarily omit pronounced sounds, but that’s one of the quirks of the publication culture.

    How would you write years more than four digits in length? My Oxford manual suggests (e.g.) 2000 BC but 20,000 BC. Not sure if American standard uses commas in any case.

    Yes, inserting commas before every set of three zeroes is the rule in the United States for prehistoric dates as well as any other number greater than three digits.

  • Peter

    It’s funny that the usage of small capitals is falling out of favour given that modern word processors make them much easier to apply. (At least Pages ’09 does, not sure about Word.) They look better to me.

    I wonder…does Pages ’09 use real small-caps, or scaled-down capitals? Most software, including Word, has used scaled-down capitals to fake small-caps. Which you might just be able to get away with at low resolutions (screen, or desktop printers), but looks horrible at print resolution. And most publishers these days take word-processor files…so they largely limit themselves to what word-processors are capable of. (Hence the prevalence of French spacing nowadays, too. Bleargh.)

  • Michael

    @Peter: I think I know what you mean. Pages ’09 includes a small capitalization (‘small caps’) function: Format>Font>Capitalization>Small Caps. So, the first capital letter appears normally sized and subsequently all letters are smaller. Does that make sense? It looks quite professional on the printed page.

    Forgive my dreadful ignorance, can you explain what ‘French spacing’ is?

  • Peter

    @Michael: yes; I know what you mean — the question is, does it use real small capitals, or does it just scale full capitals down to the smaller size? You can easily tell the difference: full-sized capitals and lower case letters should have the same weight — i.e., the thickness of the lines that make them up — if the capitals are scaled down, the lines are too thin compared to “normal” letters. True small-caps are designed with the same weight as the other letters in the font. It’s not so obvious at low resolutions, because the rasterizer can’t distinguish very many line weights with fat pixels and small characters, but at typesetter resolutions they stand out like a sore thumb.

    “French spacing” is where the space after a sentence is the same width as a space between words. In traditional typography, the spaces after sentences are slightly longer than the inter-word spaces (I think that’s where the style of using two spaces on typewriters came from, though the difference should be far less than two spaces. Typically 20–30% wider. But also more “stretchy” when a line has to be compressed or expanded to fit the measure—so on a really tight line it might be the same as a word space, the same as modern French-spaced work).

  • Michael

    @Peter: Righto. Thanks for the eye-opener.

    The small capitalization on Pages ’09 does seem to shrink somewhat, but it’s never struck me as unsightly. Then again, I’m a layman. I’ve used it in several fonts and sizes (e.g. Hoefler text 12, Cambria 42, Lucinda Grande 24) and it seems to do the trick. That said, I stand corrected re my initial statement; it’s clearly not so simple to apply small-caps. Not, at least, to the satisfaction of typographers. I must say though, a quick look at my bookshelf reveals a frequent recurrence of the same ‘problem’.

    Ah, those dastardly Frenchies! And their nefarious spacing 😉 I understand that this is the subject of some controversy. I believe Pages may well be guilty of that particular misdemeanour too. Not sure whether it’s alterable.

    My biggest quibble with Pages is that the language settings include Australian English, British English and Canadian English. All well and good so far, but then it includes the option ‘English’ (i.e. American English). Now, *that* is just plain insulting. I don’t object to US English, just that it should be labelled as such. Moreover, the British English setting doesn’t recognize Oxford spelling. Grrr. Nothing replaces a good dictionary.

    Still preferable to Word, as it doesn’t crash every other hour.

  • Peter

    I believe Pages may well be guilty of that particular misdemeanour too.

    It’s par for the course; I don’t think there are any word processors capable of traditional spacing, and even software ostensibly designed for professional typesetting (e.g., Adobe InDesign) doesn’t do it (AFAIK. Though, to be fair, InDesign is really designed for glossy magazines, not books; French spacing makes sense in magazines, saving space in usually very narrow measure).

    Moreover, the British English setting doesn’t recognize Oxford spelling. Grrr. Nothing replaces a good dictionary.

    It seems very rare to find a “British English” dictionary for any software that accepts Oxford spelling. I rarely bother now: I just stick to the default US dictionary and add correct spellings when it complains.

  • Nelida K.

    Maeve,

    Re the 24-hour time-notation system: (hope I got my hyphens right…)

    As a native Latin American, living in a Latin American country (Uruguay), I am confirming the standard usage of a colon between the hours and minutes for the afternoon notations (1:23 p.m. is rendered as 13:23). Let me say that it’s a great system to avoid confusion, especially between noon (12:00) and midnight (24:00). Simply by stating the hour it’s clear whether you are referring to morning or afternoon (5:00 or 17:00). Having said this, in speech (not in writing) it’s common to use the 12-hour notation and add “de la tarde” (in the afternoon) if it’s necessary to avoid confusion.

  • Chris M

    I always wondered what BCE and CE stood for. No on ever mentioned it before. Thanks!

  • venqax

    CE and BCE stand for Common Er and Before Common Era, respectively. It is a silly bit of PC, tho, given that what makes the common era the common era is the marker of Christ at the imaginary 0. The years– AD 2012 or 2012 CE are the same. But why is this a “cop out”? You don’t have to be a Christian (God forbid!) to recognize that the advent of Christianity was arguably the most significant event in at least Western history in the past few millennia, so is a perfectly good date marker. Other calendars use similar markers– Muslims, Jews, etc. Why always the self-consicousness-bordering-on- self-laothing from the Euro world? Mystifying.

  • Ray Myhill

    Please tell me who uses the notation: 15h25 for 15:25 or 3:25pm? Why call it 15 hours 25 mins? where did it originate?

  • Wayne

    It’s my understanding that unless the notation of time includes seconds, a period should be substituted for a colon to separate the hours from minutes. If correct, that means that the time shown on my PC’s system tray has incorrect punctuation. Moreover, it means that Microsoft has been using the wrong punctuation mark for several years!

  • Mark Nichol

    Wayne:
    In the United States, a colon should separate hours from minutes and minutes from seconds; a “period” (actually, a decimal point) should be used only when referring to time elapsed or time of day in decimal notation: 1:20:30 means “one hour, twenty minutes, and thirty seconds” (time elapsed) or “one-twenty and thirty seconds” (time of day), but 1.2 hours refers to elapsed time only—one and two-tenths hours, or one hour and twelve minutes.

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