Monday, July 04, 2016

the fourth of July

When I (or a guest blogger) have talked about dates here, it's mostly been about how dates are written. (One exception was about how we say the year.) One thing we've not really talked about is how we read dates out loud.

I've been struck by the mismatch a couple of times when British people have tried to "go American" and put the day after the month. In one case, it was The Telegraph on complained-about Americanisms on the BBC. One of these was July 5. And I thought: but Americans hardly ever say July 5. We write it, but in the context of a sentence we'd pronounce that date as July 5th. Not It's on July 5, but It's on July 5th.

The same happens in BrE. People write 5 July, but they pronounce the 5 as the ordinal version: fifth. People don't go about saying "My birthday is five July". So, I've never understood: when people complained about July 5 on the radio, had they heard someone say July five, or is that their way of writing that someone said July fifth?

It happened again today, when @BoswellAffleck forwarded to me a tweet in which someone else wished Americans a "Happy July 4". Maybe the tweeter was saying that to himself as July 4th, but if I were to write it, I think I'd write "Happy July 4th", since it's in an expression that's addressed to some particular people; not a fact of when something happened, but the name of a day. July 4 might be what I write at the top of a letter, but if I put it in a phrase like that, I think I'd have to write the th in order for it to look like it sounds.
Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence (1819)

It's OK to wish someone a Happy July 4th (especially if you're trying to save characters on Twitter), but it's still not super-idiomatic American English. The holiday that falls on that day has two official names: Independence Day and the Fourth of July. In wishing people a happy one, it's clearer to use the name of the holiday.

British folk sometimes ask me about the Fourth of July. If Americans write the date as July 4 (and 7/4 when expressing the month as a number), why is the fourth in front of the month in this case?

They probably ask about that one in particular because they don't hear all the other times Americans say the date that way. But we do have and use the option to say other dates that way too.  My Englandiversary is on the 6th of January or January 6th. I could say either, but the 6th of January sounds more formal to me. The formality might just be due to the length of it--and maybe particularly that definite the. The is something of a marker of more formal English.

At this point, a table might be a good idea.

today's date AmE BrE
07/04/2016 yes --
July 4th yes sometimes
July the 4th legal contexts yes
04/07/2016 -- yes
4th July -- yes [but more written]
the 4th July -- yes [but more written]
the 4th of July yes yes

I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus to check on these (though I used *th instead of a particular number and June instead of July, because the holiday's name would skew the results)--and that's how I found the "legalness" of [month] the [ordinal] in AmE: all of the examples seemed to be from courtrooms or reporting on legal matters, as in "the evidence will prove that Kato last saw the defendant on the night of June the 12th at 9:35 at the latest".

In general, the table shows that each national dialect wants to do something "extra" if it puts the date on the "other" side of the month from that which it occurs in writing the date numerically. If the date is put after the month in BrE, it needs a the. If it's put before the month in AmE, it needs a the and an of. These extra words are marking these expressions as 'not the default way to express the date' in those countries.

In British English, dates like the 4th June are written much more than they're said. More often the pronounced version has the of in it. Not only does the of help to avoid the ambiguity between 'the fourth day in June' and 'the fourth June in a series', it gives the date a nicer melody: spoken English doesn't like to have two stressed syllables in a row. The of breaks up the stressfest.

How did we end up putting the day on opposite sides of the month? It's one of those where American has the older form. It says July 4, 1776 at the top of the Declaration of Independence because that's how people wrote dates back then. Putting the date before the month came to Britain in the late 19th century, influenced by other European countries. (I'm going to assume "especially France", because British English loves nothing more than a bit of Frenchifying.) 

And why is the holiday the Fourth of July rather than July Fourth? I suspect it has to do with that sense of formality that the longer form conveys and the the.  It's not just some date, it's the date.
(I now have The Twelfth of Never stuck in my head.)

For more on why Americans tend to call the holiday by the date, rather than Independence Day, see this article on Slate.

And I can't leave this post without noting Nigel Farage (UK Independence Party) urging
"let June the 23rd go down in history as our independence day". 

First: note that date after the month. Does June the 23rd sound more formal or ceremonial than the 23rd of June in a BrE context? Would love to hear British thoughts on the relative formality of the ways of saying dates.

Second: Whenever I heard the Leave [the European Union] campaigners claiming that date as "Independence Day", I thought: Is that what all this is about? Are these guys just jealous that they don't have a holiday with a [orig. AmE] kick-ass name like the US has?  I'm asking a bit as a joke, but a part of me thinks that it's not far off the mark.

(The timing of the new Independence Day film, opening in the UK on the day after the EU referendum, meant that lots of people were using the film's poster instead of images of actual people fighting for actual independence in the actual world. It is all rather surreal.)

And third, this table. I haven't been able to find who first put it together and posted it  (if you know, let me know and I'll add a credit)--I've seen it on many friends' Facebook pages.

(The table is from Wikipedia, but I'm not sure who added the question and circulated it.)


Max said...

The image is from the Wikipedia article on Independence Days. Click the "Event celebrated" header to group most of the former UK colonies.

Drew Dederer said...

Don't know where the change happened (if it indeed did). The famous naval battle is always referred to as "The Glorious First of June" and that happened less than 20 years after Independence Day (the original).

So I think someone's been making it complicated, when the "The" pretty much explains why that order (specificity).

Alan Walker said...

In Australia we generally express dates in the same way as the British. But in the 1960s and 1970s in Melbourne, a "July 4" demonstration outside the US Consulate became an annual event. As far as I can recall we left wing participants always used "July 4" or "July 4th" to name these protests, never "4th of July". Furthermore, people would actually say "July four": "Are you coming to the July 4 demo?"

John Cowan said...

There's also the fact that the date on the Declaration is the date when it was printed. The vote for independence came on July 2 (my birthday, as it happens), and only two signatures were affixed on July 4, those of the president (John Hancock) and the secretary of Congress. Most other signers signed in August, and one not until 1781. Here's part of a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3:

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

(As you can see, I have no trouble writing "July 2", although I would always pronounce it "July second".)

Rachele said...

I have a vague memory of being taught - in American elementary school, in the 1980s - that you never added th/rd/nd to the number in writing. Clearly that's not/no longer the case?

Eloise said...

Formal/Ceremonial BrE I'd expect "On this, the fourth day of July, the year of our Lord, two thousand and sixteen..."

I suffer a sense of politeness failure when thinking of Farage, but he doesn't use BrE in a particularly normal way. I was wondering, since he's famously married to a German woman, if that was the German formation, but apparently not. It is Dutch though, so I wonder if it's the common formation of whatever dialect of German she speaks and it comes out when he's drunk.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Thanks, Lynne - an excellent and authoritative post at short notice! I think there is a book in there somewhere about AmE-BrE relations in wartime. I'm remembering Eisenhower writing about D-Day, for example, or 6 June 1940.

Peg said...

Rachele - it's still the case for copyeditors who adhere to Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (9.32 in the 16th edition). Though this post does help explain to me why I have to keep expunging "th" and "st" from drafts submitted to me!

lynneguist said...

Thanks for pointing out the Wikipedianess of the table, Max.

Still looking for the identity of the person who put the question at the top of it and circulated it on the internet.

lynneguist said...

Re Eisenhower using the "European" style. There's no particular lack of Americans writing "4 July 2016" and such things. It's not the usual way to do it, but it's a common affectation. I started doing so in my sensitive teenage years, and like crossing my 7s, it's never left me. (Crossing Zs didn't last long, though.)

But if Americans (in the US) write the day-number first, we have to spell out the month. 4/7/16 in America means April 7th.

I'm often caught out when asked to give my date of birth. You get used to saying your own birthday in a certain way. If I have my wits about me, I say "day-number month-name year-number". But if my wits aren't available and I automatically give three numbers,
I may well start to give them in the wrong order to the wrong people, and then I have to correct myself, and then I worry that whichever official I'm talking to will start to suspect that I'm not who I say I am, if I can't even get my birthday right...

Kagi Soracia said...

Thanks for the Slate link, I've always wondered about that.

Simon Tatham said...

(As a Brit) I've always had the vague thought that the form "Month the Nth" sounds more like the name of a monarch than it does like a date – in Britain we hear a lot of history, taught to all of us as children and referred to thereafter in many contexts, containing names like Henry the 8th, Charles the 1st, Elizabeth the 2nd. So I wonder if Farage's choice of "June the 23rd" might have been – consciously or not – chosen to evoke a sense of formality and importance arising from its similarity to that construction.

(If I had a higher opinion of Farage I might even speculate that the specific resonance with monarchy and sovereignty might have informed his choice of phrasing in that particular context.)

Alan Barker said...
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Alan Barker said...
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Alan Barker said...

A brilliant post. As the 'someone else' who may have set all this off by wishing my American friends and colleagues a "Happy July 4" - well, it was partly to save on Twitter characters, and partly, I suppose, an attempt to do the decent thing by US usage. Came out a bit weird instead.

Incidentally, I'm also struck by this point:

"Putting the date before the month came to Britain in the late 19th century, influenced by other European countries. (I'm going to assume "especially France", because British English loves nothing more than a bit of Frenchifying.)"

I seem to remember reading that the introduction into UK English of 'u' in 'colour', 'neighbour' and so on, also happened in the late 19th century. Another instance of Frenchifying? I certainly have photographs of Victorian London streets showing advertisements with the non-u spellings. Any other examples of Frenchifying worth mentioning?

lynneguist said...

Alan, the -our story is complicated, but happily for everyone there's a big chunk about it (and a whole chapter about Frenchifying!) in my next book. (The bad news, it'll be at least a year before it's out).

Here's an old blog post on it, which is not at all as good as chapter 5 of the forthcoming book!

(Thanks for the good wishes that inspired the post!)

Dave bush said...

In my personal BrE I'd never use the 4th of July freestanding even if I was being formal, it only occurs as a "suffix" phrase e.g. Thursday, the 4th of July, or today, the 4th of July.

John Wilcock said...

I'm intrigued by the leading zeros in your table.

As a Brit, I'd not normally add leading zeros when writing a date, so today would be 4/7/2016. Maybe this is Frenchification in action, as 04/07/2016 would definitely be the more usual form in France! (The only time I'd naturally add the zeros would be when filling in a form with a set number of places for the date).

And, rightly or wrongly, my impression was also that Americans tend to do the same, and that 7/4/2016 would be more common than 07/04/2016.

lynneguist said...

John: I put in the leading 0s just so that I wouldn't have to be inconsistent about having them or not having them. I think there's another post to be done about those zeroes, so I won't get into it now...

David Crosbie said...

To me the presence or absence of the in dates is not a matter of formality. It's a matter of grammar.

I take it that none of us can say *I'll see you on fourth or *They came on fifth day. For me, when the date precede the month it's straightforward ORDINAL + day where day is either explicit or understood. This is grammatically the same as SUPERLATIVE, for the good reason that either denote a unique referent of its kind. I could no more say on first day than I could on last day or on latest day.

It's almost the same when the date follows the month. Day notionally present but obligatorily ellipted, just as Queen is ellipted in Elizabeth the Second. Not quite the same. though: we can say Queen Elizabeth the Second; but we can't say *July day the fourth.

[There's also a difference here between ORDINAL and SUPERLATIVE. We can say Alexander the Great and Philip the Fair, but not *Alexander the Greatest (although that's what the Arabs call him) or *Philip the Fairest. The French extend this principle to the numbering of kings; it's Louis Quatorze, not *Louis le Quatorzième.]

In any case, for me the grammar is clear. If the ORDINAL means 'the ORDINAL day' whether before or after the MONTH, the the is grammatically essential.

The only time I use expressions like Fourth of July without the is when the date is a premodifier (adjective-like noun phrase, so to speak) as in customary Fourth of July celebrations.

David Crosbie said...

I quite often use a leading 0 (pronounced oh)
• when giving my date of birth to somebody sitting at a computer
• when giving the expiry date of my credit card over the phone.

lynneguist said...

David: the point about 'the fourth of July' being more formal is not about comparing it to 'fourth of July" but about comparing it to 'July fourth'. I'm saying its length and its expression of definiteness contribute to formality.

For a more straightforward comparison: in "July fourth" and "July the fourth", the 'the'-ful version also seems 'more formal' to me (and it is also longer). Since in AmE, it's restricted to a certain kind of formal discourse, that impression seems to have some root in reality. But I am wondering whether my perception of 'July the fourth' as formal is common to BrE speakers too.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne, whatever the case for other speakers, for me July fourth is simply ungrammatical.

David Crosbie said...

In fact, I can't even drop the the when the date is a premodifier. I can't say *customary July Fourth celebrations; I must say customary July the Fourth celebrations.

Of course I understand July fourth but that's just like understanding anything else in an alien dialect, or indeed, in a foreign language.

David Crosbie said...

... or, indeed, a foreigner speaking less-than-authentic English.

tarhoosier said...

Re: Eisenhower using the European style: It was my first take that Ike was using US military style which is always day/month/year. When someone in the US uses this style one can sometimes hear the question "Oh, were you in the Army?"
Ike was surely not being European. Or British. He was using US Army.(and all US military)

lynneguist said...

tarhoosier: good point about military, but the question would be: when did the military standari{s/z}e this? Current military date style is YEARMODA, but that didn't appear till 1968 (according to Wikipedia). No info about when they started putting the day in front of the month. During a world war would be a good guess, but it's just a guess. Does anyone know?

John Estill said...

Further on US military dates: My US Army service was from 30 March 1962 through 29 March 1965. All of our dates were written as shown, although I don't now remember whether we abbreviated the longer month names.

flatlander said...

An example of "Month the Ordinal" that sticks with me is from a movie version of A Christmas Carol. During one of the Christmas Past scenes the company sings a number with the refrain "I wish that every day could be / December the Twenty-Fifth."

Kirk Poore said...

Leading zeros on dates almost certainly results from computer input. Similarly, in most cases of casual writing, does using the century with the year. When entering data on a computer screen, the user interface usually doesn't ask you to enter the slashes. The computer could conceivably figure out 7/4/16 (entered as 7416), but it's not going to figure out 11116 or 12116. (A space or tab is usually allowed, but you still have to hit that extra key.) Even in these cases, it is sometimes conceivable that the year could be 1916 rather than 2016. So eliminating the ambiguity results in 07/04/2016 or 01/21/2016 or 12/01/2016.

David Crosbie said...

Putting the date before the month came to Britain in the late 19th century, influenced by other European countries.

Or could it have been the habit of not naming the month e.g. the 4th inst. (= of this moth), the 5th ult. (= of last month), the 6th prox. (= of next month)?

As far as I can tell, these forms dies out a hundred years ago or more, but books decrying them remained in print up till when I was a boy.

Anonymous said...

From the website: Awful Library Books, today's date.

Happy Independence Day 2016
Published July 4, 2016 | By Mary Kelly

Happy 4th of July to all our friends. We will be enjoying a nice day off and hope you get to do the same. To my British friends, you get to buy me a drink.

Don’t worry all the problems, summer reading issues, complaints, jammed copier/printers. They will still be there waiting for you on Tuesday.



Kirk Poore said...


Your "4th inst." example reminds me that I've seen that before in old books, and had to guess what it meant from the context. I've never seen the "ult." or "prox." versions, though.


David Crosbie said...

The formula

the ... of ...

is either native or 'came to Britain' a long time before 'the late 19th century'. The British Library website (click) reproduces a page from Edward the Sixth's diary for 1547. In it he wanted to write a date, but wasn't exactly sure, so he wrote

The next day, being the ... of ...

Another British Library publication Evolving English (click) reproduces two documents from the East India Company:

1 hand-written Company Court minutes of

the xxiijᵗʰ of August 1626

2 a printed Cargo List headed

LONDON, July the 14th, 1724

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

My (BrE) great-grandfather's diaries have the date in the format Month Ordinal - e.g. July 4th, 1916. He would have written 4th like that, as, indeed, I was taught to, although I would always have written 4th July 2016. I dropped the "th" as an affectation when I was at school, if memory serves me right, but of course it is the normal way now. But I would always *say* "Fourth of July" or "Sixteenth of June", or whatever. And if someone says "What's the date?" I'd answer, "It's the fourth, isn't it?"

I also started using leading zeroes as an affectation.... but I worked for a man who always wrote the month in lower-case Roman numerals, so he would write today's date as 4/vii/2016.

Michael Dolbear said...

David Crosbie said
. . .not naming the month e.g. the 4th inst. (= of this moth), the 5th ult. (= of last month), the 6th prox. (= of next month)?

As far as I can tell, these forms dies out a hundred years ago or more, but books decrying them remained in print up till when I was a boy.

The OED has updated its entry for prox. and has a 1966 quotation !!!

1881 G. B. Shaw Let. 14 July (1965) I. 39 After the 1st prox. my address will be 37 Fitzroy Street W.

1935 A. P. Herbert What a Word! iii. 64 There must be millions of our citizens who have not the least notion what is meant by your inst., prox., and ult.

1966 Irish Rep. 562 This offer must be completed not later than 12 noon on the 6th prox.

David Crosbie said...

A clear, if somewhat simplified, treatment for foreign students of Business English in my favourite textbook on the subject Company to Company (click):

1.3 The date
Be careful with the date! In British English, they write the day first, but in American English they write the month first. This Means that
.......12 06 2002
is the twelfth of June in Britain but ib the United States it is the sixth of December! So write the date like this:
.......12 June 2002
and then everyone swill know what you mean. Remember to use a capital letter for the month. You do not need to write th, rd, nd to st after the day.

How would you write these dates in a letter?

a Jan. 16th, 2001
b 23rd March 2002
c 6/11/03 (UK)
d 09-07-01 (USA)
e 21.1.01
f 04.08.02 (USA)

Laura said...

In Canada, the American construction of "Month ordinal-date" is what I hear/see/use most. Tomorrow's date would be written as July 5, but pronounced as "July fifth". The exception, of course, is the Fourth of July, which as Lynne noted is an idiomatic name for it. Interestingly, I rarely hear anyone use the same construction for Canada Day -- if for some reason they don't call it "Canada Day", most people will say "July first" rather than "the first of July".

CanE Anecdotal Summary:
January 1 - standard for formal writing
January 1st - technically not proper formal writing, but fine informally
1 January - it's used occasionally, but much less common.
1st of January - I don't think I've ever seen this. Perhaps "first of January" spelled out in words, but like Lynne's example, it's probably most common in legal contexts
"January first" - most common. In all the places I've lived in Canada, this has been standard.
"January one" - never
"January the first" - fine, but uncommon
"the first of January" - it's used, but less common. Sounds formal and old-fashioned (exception for the Fourth of July). Requires "the" (e.g. "Christmas is on the twenty-fifth of December" is ok, but "It's on twenty-fifth December" sounds peculiar -- and as noted above, most people would instead say "It's on December twenty-fifth", written as December 25)

To make things even more fun, we Canadians--as usual--take a bit from the UK and a bit from the USA. As a result, 12/01/2016 could mean December 1 or January 12 to us... I think one version is more common, but it's not standardized enough that I can ever remember which! Thank goodness for forms that specify DD/MM/YYYY or MM/DD/YYYY to clarify.

Eloise said...

I've certainly seen prox. and inst. used in things like contracts, if not everyday writing this century. I don't remember seeing ult. being used but it might be there. I have vague memories of it in ordering and delivery too, if you're ordering something in two parts, one for shipping on 10th inst, remainder for shipping on 10th prox. That was from a summer job in the early 80's and I suspect with computer inventory control it's gone the way of the dodo, as the computer will expect a 10/07/2016 or 07-10-2016 if you're over the pond unambiguous date format to be converted into unix time (time in seconds since midnight, 01/01/1971).

Kate Bunting said...

I remember a humorous verse in an anthology we had at school in the 1960s, maybe by A.P. Herbert (quoted by the OED above).

I heard the happy lark exult
Too soon, for it was early ult.

...and so on, with couplets ending with ult., inst. and prox. in turn. I can't remember any more except that the last line was

...For she will marry me in prox.

To me, the British way of giving the date in figures seems more logical, as it goes from the smallest unit to the largest.

Nobody has mentioned "Remember, remember the fifth of November".

David Crosbie said...

To confirm Eisenhower's practice, here is a signed letter (click) written a few weeks before D-Day.

I used to teach military writing. At the time i had access to some British Army teaching material, but this is very hard to access unless you're an insider, or just lucky. So I don't remember all of the fascinating details of difference between Army and ordinary civilian correspondence. But I do remember one peculiarity about dates.

Unlike Eisenhower in 1944, British soldiers later last century could not allow their typist to write the date. This is logical; a typed date shows when something was typed, not necessarily when it was written. British Army typists would type in alphabetical letters the month (or an abbreviation). The signer (not necessarily the same person as the sender) would hand-write in numerals the day to the left and the year to the right the same time as his (less often her — it was a very male army) signature.

Click to see this example.

Eloise said...

But, of course, the fifth of November is a very British celebration and the date is recorded and remembered in a very British day-month format.

If you watch V on 5/11 the allusions are all too frequently lost. Along with exactly why we celebrate someone who didn't manage to blow up parliament...

biochemist said...

In the genealogy world, we are instructed to write dates in the format 08 October 1915, to avoid misunderstanding.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries I find that newspapers in Great Britain and Ireland expressed dates in the format DAILY EXPRESS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8, 1915 across the centre top of the page. And yes, reports of shipping movements always used the date (8th) with ult. and inst. to save space.

Yesterday's newspaper is The Times| Monday July 4 2016 to one side at the top of the page.

Of course the most useful way to retain records in a computer is to entitle files with the date in yyyymmdd format, since they will be compiled in a chronological order (or the reverse, so most recent are at the top of the list). I always used this system for recording my experiments, and a friend told me that this is also used in (her department of) the UK Civil Service, for the same reason. It's the Military system but with numbers reversed.

David Crosbie said...

Looking more closely at the letter of commendation, I see that some of the signatories in the margins were not as punctilious as the chief signatory. Several had the whole date typed. One typed 7th instead of 7. One even used the format 12.7:45.

Nevertheless, the rules was as I stated. At least that was the rule at the end of last century. Since then, I'm sure the Army has woken up to the implications of universal word-processing and electronically dated document files.

David Crosbie said...

Over the last couple of days, I've heard a few spoken congratulations of the radio. The format was the one Lynn doesn't mention. (Or have I missed it?)

Happy Fourth of July.

This is perfectly grammatical for me, although the is (for me) obligatory in

Happy July the Fourth.

David Crosbie said...


a few spoken congratulations of the radio

Of course not! The radio had done nothing to deserve them. I heard

a few spoken congratulations on the radio

Steve Dunham said...

"There's no particular lack of Americans writing '4 July 2016' and such things. It's not the usual way to do it, but it's a common affectation."

I got these definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary. Is there another meaning?

1. A mannerism or habit that is assumed rather than natural, especially to impress others.

2. Behavior characterized by such mannerisms or habits; artificiality: a simpering manner that was mere affectation.

It's true I didn't naturally write date-month-year, but without being in the military I discovered it about 35 years ago and found it easier to read at a glance than dates done with numerals and slashes, especially when a handwritten one looks a lot like a slash. So I adopted it myself, but I also write month-date-year, but avoid numerals and slashes. For clarity, not to impress anybody. :-)

richardelguru said...

I've lived in the US for (GOOD GRIEF!!!) nearly 37 years and I still get caught unawares by dates that could go either way, and I always write the month as a name.

dr-tectonic said...

With regard to computers, the One True Way to write dates is in accordance with ISO 8601, which is YYYYMMDD (basic format) or YYYY-MM-DD (enhanced for human readability).

The value of doing it this way (and in particular, using leading zeroes and listing the units largest to smallest) is that in this format, sorting dates lexicographically (or numerically, with no separators) gives you exactly the same results as sorting them chronologically.

(Of course, that's just how you print dates. Often it's the case that you want to use epoch time internally, where you represent the date as an amount of time elapsed since some starting point, because that makes it easy to do calculations and lets you (mostly) ignore troublesome issues like leap days.)

David Crosbie said...

Steve Dunham

Like you I wasn't taught to write 4 July 2016 — In fact I'm not sure I remember what I was taught at school — but it's the format I've eventually settled on for writing (not saying) the date in isolation (I may write something different in a prose sentence.)

We're not alone. The British Army settled on this format for this purpose last century. Biochemist's genealogy crowd insist on it — with the slight modification of leading 0. Mrs Redboots arrived here by dropping the th/st/nd/rd, only to find that it had grown to be 'the normal way now'. Lynne joined us as a sort of pretence at being European, and ended up being European geographically. And my textbook advises foreigners to use this format 'and then everyone will know what you mean'.

Mrs Redboots and Lynne admit to a little artificiality at first, but that's not the point. What matters is that they both stuck with the formula.

The format has attracted all of us because it's good. The merits are
• The month is distinct and clear because it's spelled out in letters.
....(This advantage was shared by the obsolete inst., ult., prox.,, but these were, quite literally, in a foreign language, nay a dead language. And abbreviating the Latin words didn't help, either.)
• The numerical parts, the day and year, are distinct and clear because they're separated by an intervening word.
• The element carrying the most distinctive information, the day, is in the visually salient first position.
....(This is non-optimal for computers and their calculations, but it's just fine for ease of human perception.)

The main rival format July 4, 2016 has these demerits
• The comma as a separator has gone out of favour — especially in the layout of formal correspondence.
• The two numerical parts, the day and year, are unnecessarily close to each other.
• The heavily information-loaded part, the day , is in probably the least salient position, in the middle of the format.

The ordinal markers th/st/nd/rd may, indeed, add redundant information. But in this case the redundancy doesn't make it any easier to read. There's just more visual information to process for no real gain.

Mind you, I think it's different matter when I'm writing dates as part of prose sentences. Then I do want the reader to 'aud' (read silently aloud to the inner ear) the spoken format I've chosen. For me, both spoken formats (Americans may have three) involve and ORDINAL. My SPOKEN forms are:

So in a prose sentence I might write
1 the 4th of July
2 July the 4th

Boris Zakharin said...

I'm not sure how it is that nobody mentioned 9/11 yet. First, when it's written as above, it is often actually pronounced "Nine - Eleven" (I've come to terms with it, though I still don't like it). The other name for the day is "September Eleventh", though "September the Eleventh" is reasonably common. And George W. Bush, who was president at the time (almost?) always used the article. For some reason, unlike with the 4th of July, whose various forms are all ways we can pronounce any date, "Nine - Eleven" can only describe the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, while "the eleventh of September" cannot be used for this purpose, only for some random 11th of September.

This is all from the US perspective, of course. I have no idea how they talk about 9/11 in the UK.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@Boris - when we in the UK wish to refer to the atrocities on 11/09/01, we refer to Nine Eleven, just as you do. When we wish to refer to any other 11/09 - my younger grandson's birthday, for instance, it is the Eleventh of September....

lynneguist said...

There is a long discussion of September 11th on the past blog post on dates that's the second thing linked-to here.

Drew said...

Current US military date style for writing & correspondence is DD Mmm YY for short dates. dd Mmmm YYYY for long dates. YYYYMMDD might be used on some forms or official reports (e.g., spreadsheets, personnel files). I've never seen year-first dates on anything intended for a human reader. (Speaking from 12+ years of military service.)

I have no idea when the DD Mmm became standard in the US military, only that they drilled it into us in Officer The School.

wisob said...

Dorothy L Sayers, best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, also created a character called Montague Egg. He appears in several short stories. He is a travelling salesman, and he writes using inst. and ult. I have never bothered to find out exactly what this meant. So that's evidence for this being standard formal British English in the 1930s.

rosie said...

I am British, and I favour forms such as 6 Jul 2016 (or 6 Jul 16). Why? For the reasons given above by David Crosbie and others, but I have yet another reason: The month name and year number together uniquely identify a month. So it is natural to put them together when specifying a date in full. 6 Jul 2016 is not the sixth day of any old July, but specifically of July 2016. The order "month day, year" loses that.

(Actually, that's not the whole story: the form I actually favour is e.g. Wed 6 Jul 2016. If I'm considering doing something on a future day not chosen by me, I want to know what day of the week it'll be.)

gary said...

Inst. and Ult. were common in the States also - at least in obits. See these Brooklyn and Kansas City newspaper examples from 1879 & 1900

gary said...'s the hyperlink:

Laura said...

Rosie, I'm not sure I see how the comma before the year would make it "lose" its specificity. Whether you write "July 6, 2016" or "6 July 2016" or "July 6 2016", they all clearly identify a specific non-repeating date. I don't think anybody would be inclined to think that any of those options could refer to "the sixth day of any old July"; it's simply a punctuation convention. You write "Wed 6 Jul 2016" and I write "Wednesday[,] July 6, 2016" (I'm inconsistent with the comma after the day of the week), but both unquestionably contain the same , very clear information.

I think the point about whether one writes July 6 vs 6 July is referring specifically to the month/day vs day/month order. Naturally, for the most exact recording, we would all include the day of the week and the year as well, but that's not generally relevant in spoken conversation. Whether you say "sixth of July" or "July sixth", it's unlikely that you would say "Next week's meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, the sixth of July, two thousand sixteen"

Richard Gadsden said...

I'm seeing a reversion to two-digit years, both written and now increasingly in speech, since we're safely into the 21st century.

Four-digit years were very much a Y2K thing.

Rachel Ganz said...

I had hoped that the Rev. Dodgson covered this issue in: (pub. 1890)

But sadly, the limit of his advice is: "Next, put the date in full. It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated “Feb. 17”, “Aug. 2”, without any year to guide you as to which comes first. And never, never, dear Madam (N.B. this remark is addressed to ladies only: no man would ever do such a thing), put “Wednesday”, simply, as the date!"

without any definition of how to put the date in full.

Peter Mork said...

Late to the party, but...

David Bradley said...

British Run fans of a certain age will still giggle to recall The Friday Rock Show's Tommy Vance (the late) talk about the band's album 2112, as Two-double-one-two", I still wonder what he thought the number meant if it wasn't a year. But, then Yes came along years later and did 90125 or was it 90210? Hah!

CaptainSiCo said...

One thing I hear a lot on Australian TV promos is "starts July One" or "on October Seventeen". Even if I saw "July 1" or "October 17" written down, I wouldn't read it out that way. I'm not sure if this is restricted to TV or radio or if Aussies often greet each other with "G'day Bruce, you coming to my barbie on August Twelve?" I doubt they do!