Writing the Century

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Melvin Merzon sets me this multi-part question:

How would you write “21st Century”? In a legal document? In a business letter? In fiction? In  a  nonfiction context?
21st Century?
21st century?
Twenty-first Century?
Twenty-First Century?
twenty-first century?

My short answer for all specified contexts is twenty-first century.

Unless the name of the century begins a sentence or is part of a proper name, it is written in all lowercase letters: We are living in the twenty-first century.

When a century is part of a proper name, no hard and fast rule can apply. Someone naming a program, company or a book may express the century any way they wish:

Twenty-first Century Scholars
Twenty-First Century Foundation
Twenty-First-Century Gateways (In this book title the century name has become an adjective.)
20th Century Fox
Century 21 Realty

Newspaper headline writers may also exercise freedom when writing the century: New Year Rings in 21st Century

Bottom line: go with twenty-first century unless there is some reason not to–for example, contrary guidelines in a style manual you are required to follow.

Writing the Decades
Decades may be spelled out or expressed in numerals:

the eighties
the 1980s

NOTE: There’s no apostrophe between the numerals and the letter s.

The same rule about capitalization applies to decades as to centuries: if the decade is part of a proper name or title, it will be capitalized; otherwise leave it in lowercase. For example, write “the nineties,” but “the Gay Nineties”

Referring to the first two decades of a century can be tricky.

For example, if you want to talk about the first decade of the century, you can’t write the 1900s, or the 2000s because too many readers would assume you’re referring to the entire century.

Another problem is that not all authors agree as to what years are included in a decade. Is the “first decade” of the 1900s 1900 to 1909, or 1900-1910?

And what about the second decade? Some writers talk about the “teens” of a century, but what about the years ending in -10, -11, and -12?

When writing about the first two decades of a century, it’s probably best to be a little wordy for the sake of clarity. For example: History seemed to repeat itself in the decade 2000-2009.

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20 thoughts on “Writing the Century”

  1. Well… a decade is 10 years, so it’d have to be 1900-1909 or 1901-1910.

    As there was no year zero, many argued that the start of this millennium was 1/1/2001, not 1/1/2000.

    (It goes 1BC, 1AD. Not 1BC, 0AD, 1AD)

  2. I concur with spike1. The correct begining of the millennium was 1/1/2001. This is consistent with counting. We count one through ten, not zero through nine. There are ten years in a decade and 100 years in a century. The twentieth century began in the year 1901 and ended with the year 2000, thus the twenty.

    From what I understand, the current year should be pronounced twenty oh nine instead of two thousand nine, but I think it doesn’t really matter. One could have correctly said “the year one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine” instead of “nineteen ninety-nine.” Guess it depends upon what is comfortable.

  3. Melvin asked a good question.

    Can you believe it’s 2009! — which I pronounce as two thousand nine, not twenty oh nine. What do others say? (You probably covered this seven or eight years ago, but I missed it.)

  4. I think it’s also worth noting that if you want to contract the name of a decade written in numeric form, the correct form for the contraction is:




    I see this done wrong all over the place! It’s almost as ubiquitous as misuses of “it’s” and “its.”

  5. I have heard the argument that there was no year zero (0), so the first year of a century is ’01, a decade starts at ‘1.

    Yet my alarm clock tells me that 12:00 pm, noon, is definitely, completely in the afternoon.

    I understood that making text entities with non-letter characters into a plural form, you separate the s from the term with an apostrophe – 1900’s, Jones’, Smith’s, or Bang!’s. So, why no apostrophe with 1980s? Is this Plurals 2.0?

  6. Brad,

    I would have to argue that noon is by definition NOT in the afternoon, since “p.m.” stands for post meridiem, “after noon.” So noon is a point in time that divides morning from afternoon and belongs to neither.

    The designers of digital clocks presumably had to decide whether to have the clock say “p.m.” on the stroke of noon, or some infinitesimal fraction of a second after the moment had passed, and went with the obvious choice. (Likewise midnight is designated by digital clocks as 12:00 a.m.) Some style guides suggest foregoing “a.m.” and “p.m.” in references to noon and midnight. I prefer just plain “noon” and “midnight” as opposed to the redundant “12:00 noon” or “12:00 midnight.”

    I think you’re mixing together the notions of pluralization and possession to some extent. You shouldn’t use an apostrophe to pluralize Smith or Jones:

    The Smiths live as at 2315. The Joneses live at 2317.


    2315 is the Smiths’ house. 2317 is the Jones’s house.

  7. it’s 2009! — which I pronounce as two thousand nine, not twenty oh nine. What do others say?

    Not being American, I say “two thousand and nine” (never could figure out why Americans nowadays like to drop the “and” in numbers…)

  8. As an American teacher, my elementary-aged students are taught to drop the ‘and’ as they learn to read large numbers and monetary amounts aloud because ‘and’ means there is a decimal present. It has nothing to do with being lazy.

  9. tgrillo: how does “and” mean there’s a decimal present? Do you mean you read “1.5” as “one and five” or something? Surely not! (How would you distinguish between “1.5” and “1.05” then?)

  10. Peter, I imagine it goes “one and five tenths” and “one and five one hundredths”.

    Depending on local dialect, at speed I imagine “two hundred and nine” might be confused with “two hundred thousand nine”. Some may think of this as reducing confusion, maybe?

    But I think the and thing reflects a change in thinking about numbers. If you learn of numbers and number of thousands, plus number of hundreds, plus number of tens – sort of like a verbal description of an abacus – then the “and” stands for an addition operation.

    But generations growing up with numbers, now see 1960 as a number just 40 less than 2000, and not related to the MCMLX Roman numeral, or as the sum of thousands, hundreds, tens, and units. Perhaps this is new math manifesting as a change in grammar usage.

  11. I read them as “one point five” and “one point oh five”; but you can’t really confuse “one hundred and one” (101) with “one hundred and one tenth” (100.1) with “one hundred and one and one tenth” (101.1) anyway … still less things like “one hundred and twenty three” vs. “one hundred and twenty three tenths”, since the latter doesn’t make sense (or at least isn’t the way you’d expect anyone in their right mind to say 102.3).
    I could imagine someone saying they had a problem with the difference between the two numbers “one hundred” and “one” vs. the single number “one hundred and one”; but I have the same problem with the American style: when you say “one hundred one” I interpret it as “100, 1” — it sounds like there should be more numbers following (I’d expect an “and” before the last one)

    But generations growing up with numbers, now see 1960 as a number just 40 less than 2000, and not related to the MCMLX Roman numeral, or as the sum of thousands, hundreds, tens, and units. Perhaps this is new math manifesting as a change in grammar usage.

    I would think the opposite would be true: don’t they still teach kids to count in non-decimal bases? Binary, at least, is rather common nowadays 🙂

  12. How would you denote in writing the first decade of the 21st century?
    For the last of the 20th you would say 1990s, for the second of the 21st you would say 2010s? But what about the first? If one says 2000s that sounds like the whole century? Any ideas?

  13. Peter, my math teacher told me that “and” is supposed to be used ONLY at the decimal point (and don’t get me started on periods vs. commas in numbers). That’s grammatically correct, but even most Americans don’t bother with it. “1.5” is “one and five tenths.” “1.05” is “one and five hundreths.” “1,258.1079” is properly read as “one thousand two-hundred fifty-eight and one thousand seventy-nine ten-thousanths.”

  14. If I was talking about antique, vintage and 21c furniture would the c in 21c be caps or lower case? TIA!

  15. Mr. Tom Dunkley,
    The c in “21c furniture” would be lowercase. I suppose the context would be a listing, as in a catalog.

    In a running text, the preferable form would be “twenty-first century furniture.”

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