conformity and date-writing

Here's a guest post from my lovely friend, psychologist Julie Coultas, who's been seen on this blog before in the guise of 'Maverick'.  I hope you enjoy it too!

Vive la diffĂ©rence! As a research psychologist, I welcome the difference between BrE and AmE. Here is one of the reasons why. An American student from the University California at Santa Barbara (SB from now on) came over to work with me last year, as she wanted to extend some conformity research that I had been doing. I run experiments to find out when and how people copy each other. Why people copy each other is another matter! Many years ago one of my experiments manipulated how people wrote the date, and we discovered that people will copy the manner in which other people write the date (e.g. change from 14/5/09 to 14th May 2009). A trivial behavio(u)r you might remark – but it is a strong indicator that when we are aware that our behavio(u)r is different to the majority we often change it to fit in with the ‘group’. In my earlier experiments we found that we could get people to change from the rare behavio(u)r (14th May 2009) to the social norm (14/5/09) more easily. It was almost as if people reali{s/z}e when their behavio(u)r is not the social norm.

After lengthy discussions with SB about how we could set up an experiment to look at how much people conform, we decided to manipulate an essential difference between BrE and AmE – yes, the manner in which we write the date. Americans write the date May 14th 2009 and British write the date 14th May 2009. Now, I don’t want to get into discussion about which is the ‘correct’ way to write the date but it does seem intuitively more simple to put the day before the month as this way it is in order of increasing size of time period. Of course, I am influenced by the BrE social norm! I want to be part of my cultural group.

At the time that we were planning our experimental study, 400 American students had arrived on our British campus for 8 weeks of study. We decided to see whether we could get American students to write the date in the British manner. We manipulated the date on two forms that the students were given when they took part in our experiment. We told them that the study was about architecture and creativity and asked them to build marshmallow and (AmE) toothpick/(BrE) cocktail stick towers in a given amount of time. At the start of the experiment, they signed a consent form that had room for one signature and, importantly for this study, the date. That way we could see how the American students usually wrote the date. Then when they had built their marshmallow towers they had to sign another form in order to be entered for a prize (BrE) draw/(AmE) drawing. This form had nine forged signatures, American email addresses and dates. We manipulated these dates so that a proportion were BrE (14th May 2009) and a proportion were AmE (May 14th 2009). We did not use any numerical dates (14/5/09) as it could become confusing for the participants.

Now the question is – can we get people to change the way that they write the date? In this particular case, can we get people to change their social norm? Well, as in many psychology experiments, there was that additional variable that changed the outcome of the whole experiment! By the time we had finished planning the experiment, the American students had been in the UK for two to three weeks. A large number of students had not been outside the USA before arriving on the British campus and so were adjusting to cultural differences. In one of the classes that these students attended, a register where they wrote their name and the date, illustrated a behavio(u)ral change across the first few weeks. In the first 2 weeks, all the students wrote AmE date, in the third week, 22% were writing BrE and by week 7, 88% were writing BrE. So even without our experimental manipulation, American students were being influenced by the social norm.

Working on this study with SB (an American student) over a period of 8 weeks gave us many opportunities to remark on cultural differences. For instance, we bought (orig. AmE) cookies and drinks as an incentive for these students to take part in the study. I was strictly instructed by SB in the type of cookies and (BrE) crisps/(AmE) chips to buy – they had to be familiar to the students otherwise they would not be interested. We almost had a breakdown in communication when SB saw the (BrE) sell-by date on one of the packs of cookies! If we write the date differently, we also read it differently. We always have to be calculating is it the 7/5 or 5/7? Things like that can make a difference when buying goods or arriving on the right day for a meeting.

Finally, let me describe one finding from our study that is not related to AmE and BrE date signing. In a previous study we found that people were more likely to change from 14th May to 14/5 than from 14/5 to 14th May. You could almost argue that 14/5 is the social norm in the UK. Many people would counter that it depends on the situation in which they are writing the date. Despite these considerations, we can state quite categorically that people do change the way that they write the date dependent on how many other people write it in a certain way. In the study with the American students, SB and I found that they changed from 14/5/09 to 14th May 2009 (from the numerical to the analogical) far more than in my previous study. We call this our ‘stranger in a strange land’ phenomenon. These students were out of their comfort zone and were more likely to copy the majority behavio(u)r to fit in with the group. Or maybe American students are more conformist than British students?


  1. Interesting. If I'm writing a letter (especially by hand, but usually if I'm typing it too) I'll write out the month in words (14th May). But for form-filling I'll usually use the numerical form.

    The switch of day/month in the AmE and BrE versions always gets me confused though.

  2. Is the use of the superscript th in 4th or st in 1st a Bill Gatesism that Microsoft Word has influenced people to use?

  3. @MM, it's been standard in BrE since long before Bill Gates was a twinkle in his mother's eye. Is it not standard in AmE?

  4. @MM, wikipedia says:
    "The suffixes -st (e.g. 21st), -nd or -d (e.g. 22nd or 22d), -rd or -d (e.g. 23rd or 23d), and -th (e.g. 24th) are used. In the Victorian period these indicators were superscripts under general French influence especially on British English, but by the late 20th century formatting them on the line was favored.[citation needed] Since the 1990s the superscript style has been revived somewhat because some word processors format ordinal indicators as superscripts as the default setting."

    The article doesn't distinguish AmE from BrE, but in my experience in the UK, the superscript has always been the standard form.

  5. Is there perhaps a difference between the desire to not be misunderstood and therefore adapting to what seems to be the norm and conforming?

  6. Certainly the AmE order is the older one, in line with AmE's tendency to keep older variants intact (part of the general tendency of peripheral dialects to do so). For example:

    IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
    The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

  7. So Brits always write the "st" "rd" or "th" when they spell out dates? I didn't think anybody born after 1930 did that.

  8. I work in a global company and one of the first rules is "Never use a number for the month." That's not completely true, but I have found it much more clear to write the date as 1Feb10 (without the 'th') than with numbers (is 2/1 1Feb or 2Jan?) I have found that at work people do tend to conform to that norm.

    Note: the exception is dating computer files, when it is yyyymmdd (20100215) so the files sort nicely!

  9. [I live in the US.] I would write the date (today) as:

    16 FEB 2010

    I do this for a variety of reasons that amount to it being a weird thing that I wouldn't expect anyone else to do. I hate number-only dates, I don't want to write out the whole month name, I capitalize the month so the date stands out and I don't have to type a period after it (I don't usually add periods for lower-case abbreviations anyway, as I can't stand seeing them in the middle of sentences - but I feel capitalizing exempts me from putting a period there). But I only write it like that when it is isolated. Inside a document I would write "February 16, 2010." I prefer this over day-first dating because we literally say "February sixteenth, two-thousand ten."

    I said that I don't like number-only date writing, but in some cases I will put down something like 2/16 - if I'm writing quickly, especially a note-to-self that I will dispose of, or when I need to "initial and date" something on a form, for example. For things I may refer back to in the future, I use my weird format.

    I also never put in superscripts. The number-letter combination doesn't seem right to me. I consider the day part of a date to be an abbreviation in itself. I am weird about abbreviations anyway and refuse to use some common ones but I have some of my own (for example, when taking notes, I will write "btx" in place of "between").

    ...Sorry for my overly-wordy post, everyone!

  10. I think I must be particularly stubborn and non-conformist; I'm British, and after more than twelve years in the US I still (deliberately and consciously) write my dates as 16th February and so forth, unless it's a form with specified fields. (YYYYMMDD is fine for computers, but for something to be read by a human I lean towards spelling out the month rather than risking the confusion of numbers.)

  11. I tend to write using numerals (in the usual British order) but vary between using dashes and slashes (i.e. 17-02-10 or 17/02/10). Not sure why.

    If using dashes it's always two number codes for day, month and year, (i.e. 17-02-10 not 17-2-10 or 17-02-2010) but with slashes I'll sometimes drop a 0 from the first half of a day or month (17/2/10), though never in the year.

    If I do write dates out in words I'll always use the two letter suffix, superscripted, and the full month name.

    I'll also add 'of' between day and month and a definite article to the day if it's part of a sentence. (It was (Wednesday) the 17th of February 2010).

  12. Here in America, we write the date in numerical form in the manner we speak it. Month/Day/Year In England, does one speak the date the way they write it in numerical form?

  13. Yes, in the UK we speak it in the same order we write it. For example, "seventeenth of the second twenty ten" or "seventeeth of February 2010". "I'm going to London on the seventeenth of May".

    I write my dates "10th May 2009" for letters - which is standard for the UK. I would never miss out the "th/st" because in BrE I would consider that bad practice and incorrect.

    Similarly, when speaking, I would never miss out the "of" in "tenth of May".

    When writing dates, I would write 17/02/10 or if I was trying to write faster and it was the 5th of Feb perhaps 5/2/10.

  14. I'd agree with mischacesky--as an AmE living in BrE, my first desire, once I realized the date was written differently, was to make sure I wasn't misunderstood. But I suppose that in itself is a kind of desire to conform to the norm.

  15. As an undergraduate I picked up a habit from one of my lecturers where when writing by hand I'd put the date in the normal British order but use lower-case Roman numerals for the month, so today would be 17.ii.10. In more recent years (I suspect because back in 2000 I thought '.00' looked strange) I've started writing the four-digit form of the year, so today I'd put 17.ii.2010. If I'm typing though I'll write the month out either in full or as 'Feb'.

    Over the last couple of years on British radio I've noticed there is an increasing tendency for announcers to use a hybridised BrE/AmE form of the date where they say 'Tuesday seventeenth of February' instead of the more usual British form 'Tuesday the seventeenth of February'. I suspect the rationale behind this is an attempt to sound clearer but personally I find it horribly jarring. Fortunately though I haven't yet noticed it finding its way into wider usage.

  16. The usual day-month-year order in written BrE is also the standard in most parts of the world; the reverse order (year-month-day) is common in China and Japan (and some other places in east Asia); the month-day-year format is only really found in the US, Canada (though not exclusively) and one or two other places.

    "asked them to build marshmallow and (AmE) toothpick/(BrE) cocktail stick towers in a given amount of time"

    Not the main thrust of the post, but I noticed this distinction. What I (BrE speaker) call a cocktail stick may well be called a toothpick by AmE speakers, but then what would they call the thing which I call a toothpick (which is obviously similar in form to a cocktail stick but is quite a bit smaller)?

  17. And while we're at it, what do Americans call a small piece of length of pointed wood for use in eating olives etc. ?

  18. AmE in my area would say fourteenth, but would never use the superscript in writing a date.

    lammyl posted "seventeenth of the second twenty ten"
    I don't use the that version, and don't think I've ever heard it used.

    Ambulent said: a hybridised BrE/AmE form of the date where they say 'Tuesday seventeenth of February'
    That is not a form I hear anyone using. I can't guarantee it's not said anywhere in U.S., but I don't see it as a borrowing from us. I use the same format you say is standard BrE.

  19. Brits can just about manage to refer to the 11th of September 2001 as 9/11, because that is a very quick way of summarising a cataclysmic event. Like D-Day, we know what it means. Our small-scale equivalent in London, the bombs in the Tube trains and bus, happened on 7th July 2005 (7.7.05) - which has sometimes been abbreviated to 7/7, of course, and luckily causes no confusion.

    But when I try to remember the day/month order in orthodox BrE, I am flummoxed by 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' who - for the sake of the rhyming scheme - was apparently 'born on the fourth of July'!!

  20. @PW
    The specific 'borrowing' from AmE I meant was omission of the definite article from dates. As I understand it a common AmE usage is 'February seventeenth', whereas a BrE speaker would say 'February the seventeenth' or 'the seventeenth of February'. So the radio announcers I mentioned are using the conventional BrE word order but omitting the definite article as in AmE.

  21. In New York recently visiting my fiancee, using the computer room in her building I had to write the date and time of arrival. I was torn between using my normal BrE form (4/1/2010) or switching it round to conform with the US norm. In the end I consciously stuck with the BrE, but had it been likely to cause confusion I would certainly have switched it round (I also used 24 hour time format).

    Later this year she will be moving over here, and she already realises it is something she will have to get used to to write the date in the opposite order to what she is used to-- as I would if I moved over there-- in order to avoid confusion. She is not looking forward to that.

    I have noticed a curious tendency among AmE speakers to reverse the date order for the Independence Day holiday, so they say July 2nd, July 3rd, fourth of July, July 5th... It's far from universal, but doesn't seem to be uncommon. An interesting way to mark the day.

  22. I'm interested, and slightly amused, to notice that comments on this blog are dated in the form:

    17 February, 2010.

    I would never normally put a comma between the month and the year.

    I understand that the American usage of February 17th 2010 was, once upon a time, the norm here in the UK, too, but has now become obsolete. I can't help wondering whether that was due to the fact that when we started writing our dates numerically (when was that, does anybody know?) we wrote it in a day-month-year format.

    I find that if someone writes February 17th, it doesn't worry me and I probably won't even notice - but I get very confused with 02/17/2010!

  23. The US military uses the form - 12 May 2010, or 27 Feb 1960, always a 3 letter month. A lot of folks in the US have served, even if only as reserve, and been taught this variant.

  24. @ Ambulent
    I understand now, and you're right.

    For what it's worth, I would see "The 4th of July" more as the name of the holiday, rather than saying the date.

  25. Switching from British dd/mm/(yy)yy format to Swedish (yy)yymmdd format was one of the first and easiest things I did when I moved to Sweden. Perhaps filling in forms is the reason.
    When I was in the UK I used ddth(superscript) Month yyyy form only on cheques and forms, the rest of the time it was dd/mm/(yy)yy. Now I have to consciously think if I'm to write it this way

  26. Laura in Cambridge17 February, 2010 20:45

    I have thought about this difference in date preference a's interesting to know month, day, year, was the original format! I had always assumed there was simply some difference in the concept of a date in the minds of BrE and AmE speakers, e.g. I always think of the month first because that's the meaningful part to me...whereas the same date numbers occur (almost) every month.

  27. My preferred personal forms are:
    - yyyy-mm-dd (numeric) and
    - dd Monthname yyyy (full)

    For public communication I use dd/mm/(yy)yy for numeric but I won't compromise on the full form if I can help it.

    I dislike the pointless comma before the year, and I dislike the pointless th (superscript or otherwise) after the day-number. I don't think I see either very often in writing; but then I don't read a lot of handwritten letters or essays, where it might be more common.

    In speech I have no preference between "the Fourth of May" or "May (the) Fourth", except when making Star Wars jokes. The latter format has the advantage that the "the" is optional.

    I think the 4-AUG-1972 format is the default in the Oracle database; a nice concession to internationalism, unlike the telephone-number format mask.

  28. The American standard puzzles me. There is an ISO standard, which starts with the year and goes backward. I teach my students to use it or write out the month in letters.

  29. This is a very interesting study. I think students would conform by changing the date format just as they would conform by looking right, then left, when crossing the street--necessity. For the former, so you're not misunderstood, for the latter, to stay alive.

    I think it would be more interesting to see how long US students take to conform by using different words - AmE vs BrE. e.g. lorry vs. truck, etc. I (personally) found it very difficult to switch from certain words when I was in England because they felt awkward and a bit prissy coming out of my mouth. I still find it hard to call it a "dust bin" instead of a "trash can," but you do what you have to do to conform ...

  30. As a Frenchie living among Yanks - for decades - I am still amazed that many of Mr. Lincoln's worthy heirs are totally unaware of any customs but their own: regarding numbers, time, dates,etc.

  31. I'm canadian and would definitely write the date as either February 18 2010 or as 18/02/2010 but never with the day first when writing out the month or with the month first when using only numbers.

  32. I have a tendency to leave out the superscript '-st', '-nd' etc, even when hand-writing the date, to conform to what my computer likes to do when I type the date!

    As an Aussie who lived in the US for four years, I became used to writing the date (on forms etc) as mm/dd/yy. Having been born on the 21st of the month, my husband on the 30th, and my first daughter on the 27th, those dates were unabiguous, but our second daughter was born in the USA on 4 January, so 1/4/yy on her birth certificate and medical records.

    When we moved back to Australia, and our GP's office had to fill in all of her immunisation details for their official records, most of them were wrong (as they had been done at the beginning of each relevant month). It took some convincing them that she didn't have a heap of shots 2 days apart in the month of April...!

  33. My practice (AmE, but from a military family) is to use either the form used in this comments section or the same format but with a three-letter abbreviation for the month. (Always with a comma before the year, even when writing a check/cheque, and never with the ordinal marker).

    FWIW, I use this format unless specifically required by a form of some sort. I've many times used a date format different from/than that used by others on the same sheet of paper.

  34. I work in French Canada and our team often interacts with all the country, English and French. English Canadians (like Sarah and Mark have alluded to above) generally follow the American m/d/y format, and French Canadians the d/m/y format. I've gotten our team to always write the name of the month in both languages, so as to avoid any confusion.

    Also, anything internal will be filled in using yyyy-mm-dd, which can't be confused for one of the others (as long as you use for digits for the year) and it's great for sorting chronologically.

  35. I am an AmE speaker who worked for a British firm in Berlin for many years. I tend to write the month as three letters and put it in the middle to 1) avoid 4 Jan/Apr 1 confusion (nearly 40% of days fall into this category) and 2) because it's logical. Just as I complain about the German four-and-twenty number format (which is old English, too) the month-day-year format is asynchronistic (I don't care if you don't think this is a valid word) listing the middle value then the smallest value then the largest value. It wreaks havoc on my need for harmony. I hold no sentimental feelings for Americanisms that don't make sense.
    As for 'th'-ing the day I find that out-of-date and superfluous. 4 May needn't be written 4th May as a date. 'The fourth of May' or 'On the 4th of May' is text and different from a date on a letter or form.
    Unfortunately google won't let me log in today so I have to publish anonymously, otherwise rootberlin

  36. When I was at primary school (I'm British), they were VERY strict about short- and long-form dates. Maths was the only subject where you were allowed to write a numerical date (which obviously was DDMMYY, and anyone not including the year was to be shot) and in all other subjects, you had to write the full date, including the day (eg. Monday 1st January).

    Now, I write D/M unless it's the first entry in something I might come back to after some time, in which case I put D/M/Y. The exception is if I'm writing online, in which case I write for example '7 May' because writing 7/5 could be taken as either the 7th of May or the 5th of July.

    Speaking, it wouldn't be unusual for me to say something like 'May seventeenth' but only because 'the seventeenth of May' is long-winded and 'seventeenth May' or 'seventeen May' doesn't sound right to me (probably because I hear 'May seventeenth' from Americans).

  37. I (BrE) follow a former German colleague's practice when giving file names to electronic documents of putting a date at the end of the draft, eg this document might be named "SBCL 100219". Immensely logical, but it hadn't occurred to me until I saw her doing it.

  38. This ISO (International Standards Office) standard is yyyy-mm-dd -- appending it to file names will ensure that they always sort in the correct temporal order, eg. file1_2010-02-17 before file1_2010-02-18. Try that with either Am or Br dates!

  39. I was foiled yesterday in my attempt to repeat the 'conformity' experiment - but perhaps others can try it. When visiting an old colleague in a nursing home, I have to sign in and out, giving relevant times. In the afternoon, one can use the 24-hour clock or the time as we say it. I thought I would do the reverse of previous entries and see if others followed me - so I wrote 4.15 on the page. But alas, no-one else arrived in the interim before I left; not only that, but I had to start a fresh page, which would remove clues to the previous entries.
    I will try again next time and hope to find out if the next visitors follow me or the majority!

  40. @Mrs Redboots. You asked about when we started writing our dates numerically. By which I assume you mean 4 or 4th instead of fourth, rather than just the numbering of the months. I have recently started transcribing old parish records going back several centuries and the number of different methods of recording dates (and the handwriting) is mind-boggling. Roman numerals for the years are quite common between 1538 and 1640, whilst roman numerals for the month pop up all over the place. And of course the latin date could also appear in word form as quarto (on the fourth) or quattuor (four).
    Worse still, prior to 1752 the year began on the first of March, so an entry for 8 or 8ber meant October - the then eighth month - (and of course the reason that October, November and December are so named).
    And then there are the regnal years, where 6 Mar actually means the sixth year of the reign of Mary, ie 1558.

  41. The adaptation is very much about clarity - On arriving in the US for the first time my university's international office was thrown into a panic when they thought I'd messed up my visa dates. (Although you'd think they'd've been used to dates not conforming to the US format, being an INTERNATIONAL OFFICE but hey). I quickly learnt to write the date that way, encouraged by forms which often have a watermark in the date boxes showing mm/dd/yy, just to make it idiot-(and international student-)proof.
    I never found it necessary to change my text style (20th Feb 2010) because there's no ambiguity.
    Ambulant's absolutely right, omitting the 'the' from a spoken date is jarring, in the same way as that bit at the start of Syriana when the English newsreader says 'A hundred twenty'. In a British accent its completely wrong, it feels like holding in a sneeze.
    Lammyl's 'seventeenth of the scond' is not frequwently used, but I don't reckon any Brits would be wrong-footed by it. It's the form that I almost always use if I'm giving a date over the phone.

  42. @mollymooly: I think the comma in the date format of January 1, 2010 is to add even more visual separation of the day numerals from the year numerals.

  43. Fascinating stuff. I hope to have time to read all these comments!

    I'm in the UAE where there is a great mix of BrE and AmE. I wonder if it is the cause of a recent mix up.

    We had cards issued for insurance purposes. My wife's dob is written in BrE standard and mine in AmE.

  44. I think that techy-geeky types also quite prefer YYYYMMDD numerical format (with or without separating dashes, slashes and the like) for file names as it results in a chronological ordering.

  45. On conformity, there's that simple experiment: collect about a dozen people in a room. In some way, inform all except one to give the answer 9. Clap your hands 10 times and ask each participant how many claps they heard.

    The uninformed individual, on being asked (last) will very often answer 9 not 10.

  46. I'm another who's a bit sceptical about the date-writing experiment. Communicating a date is important -- conforming to the local standard comes under "survival" rather than "being agreeable".

    Which is why most experiments on conformity and peer pressure use techniques like estimating the length of lines or answers to arithmetic problems.

    It's hard to think of a conformity experiment using anything linguistic that won't be confused by "survivalism". Perhaps pronunciation? If one person says zee-bra and everyone else in the room says zeb-ra, will the first person conform?

  47. @Esha:
    while I can see the need of a comma in "February 16, 2010", that is a fault of the month-day format rather than a benefit of the comma. And "16 February, 2010" is the worst of both worlds.

  48. You can safely assume that any American visiting Britain these days has had to present a US passport -- in which the date of birth, date of issue and date of expiration (sic) are all given in day-month-year format -- and has taken an international flight using a ticket (or e-ticket) on which the departure and arrival dates are given in day-month-year format.

    Dates are easy. Try something harder: how long do AmE speakers have to be in Blighty before they can quote their own weight in stone(s)?

  49. I take the view that the Americans have 31 months, the days of which are interleaved in a curious way.

  50. My work once took me to most Central American and Caribbean-Basin countries, where I dealt with all their passports. It was a while ago, but ISTR they all used DDMMYY, but used Roman numerals for the MM. I took the view that they did this to establish disambiguation, since their northerly neighbor refused to do so.

  51. Biochemist said (way up nearer the top of the page): "Brits can just about manage to refer to the 11th of September 2001 as 9/11, because that is a very quick way of summarising a cataclysmic event. Like D-Day, we know what it means."

    But I suspect that, now that "9/11" has been accepted as the name of the event, most Brits automatically think of it as referring to the 9th of November.

  52. I don't say "nine eleven" for any normal date, so, although I'm American, if somebody said that today is "two twenty-three" I would assume they mean the time not the date (if they said today is "twenty-three two" I would be completely puzzled as two what they meant. Now if they were reading a text and read the date that way, especially including the year, I'd understand. If this is how it works in the UK as well, then maybe that's why "nine eleven" is not confused with the ninth of November. However, I still prefer "September (the) 11th" as the name of the event, at least when spoken out loud.

  53. The norm in reading a two number date, at least in my experience in Yorkshire, would be to refer to today as twenty-third of the second.

  54. As the name of the event, I prefer something unambiguous like "the World Trade Centre bombing" (or "attack", I guess, since bombs weren't used). Around this house we were mainly referring to it as "the Twin Towers" for the first year or so.

    But the American form of "9/11" seems to have won out in the media.

    Speaking entirely for myself (as someone with memory abnormalities), I recall the event but have no idea what the date was, not even what season of the year. If someone seems to be telling me it was the 9th of November, I'm happy to go along with that. It takes a distinct mental effort to remember "9/11" is an American-style date, so it must refer to the 11th of September.

    Not that there's a lot of distance between September and November anyway.

  55. I would never say "nine-eleven" unless I were reading off a date for someone to copy in the same form. When my clients give me dates in that form, I ask "Is that September 11th?" If I want to give the date some importance, say, for an even, I might say the eleventh of September. (We call the events of that fateful day 9/11 because that's also our emergency phone number.)

    In a letter, I would usually write out February 24(superscript th optional), 2010. My checks say Feb 24, '10. When I sign a document for a client, it says 2/24/10. I often put a date in a computer filename as 2-24-10, but only because it won't take the slash.

    The superscript is old-fashioned, and is underlined in handwritten script. American English has been dropping all those typographical details for decades now, I think thanks to typewriters, which don't support them. It's also sometimes used for the cents in prices. I've always been fond of it because it's old-fashioned. (I like the offset numerals, too.)

  56. The BrE/AmE difference isn't distinct, at least not on the BrE side. Some BrE folk write March 5, 2010 and some BrE folk write 5 March 2010 without the "th". Others use numeric dates. Some write dates with the day of the week. The best dates are Japanese, thus 20100305.

  57. Comments like Jean-Paul's above probably explain why the American students might be quicker than equivalent British students (or commenter elarien) to switch how they write the date. As an American expatriate, I can tell you that if I were to say something like elarien said, I'd be viewed as "ignorant" and "selfish" -- not a "nonconformist."

  58. I have noticed a few of comments suggesting that the date-switching behavior "may not be conformity but rather an attempt to avoid misunderstanding." When designing the experiment we did take precautions against this. We wanted to disentangle the possibility of confusion from conformity, making the conformity arbitrary, rather than necessary. Thus all of the manipulated dates were written analogically (i.e. May 17, 2010 or 17 May 2010). In this way we avoided the possibility that people were "just trying to survive/be understood" and were measuring a completely arbitrary form of conformity.

    Also, Isabelle, I love that you mention looking at how long it takes American students to start using words like lorry and dust bin. In designing the experiment we actually began thinking about that very subject. I'm not sure whether it would be "more interesting" but it would be equally as interesting and perhaps serve the same function as date-writing (which is language too). We ultimately went with date-writing because it is finite, measurable, and can be produced under both experimental and natural conditions.

    In hindsight, I am glad we chose date-writing instead of language, as my naturalistic observation of Americans in England have shown to be lesser and less measurable. We do pick up on the catchy and obvious phrases such as "cheers," but I have never heard an American say lorry, most likely because we are rarely exposed to such words. Some Americans will switch to say toilet, but others will continue to say restroom, because toilet sounds vulgar to the American ear. A really interesting one- unrelated to our experiment- is "recovery service." After 3+ years living in the UK, my (American) boyfriend's car broke down on the side of the highway(motorway). Trying to figure out how to get a "tow truck" was nearly impossible because the service is a "recovery service"!

    -Santa Barbara

  59. @ the previous anonymous poster:

    I am very interested in what you have said. A few people have already suggested that "Americans are just more conformist." I have been hesitant to believe this because many scientific studies (and casual knowledge) suggests that Americans are less conformist and more individualist than other cultures. The very fact that our ancestors left Great Britain and started our own colony leads me to believe that independence is, in many ways, natural to the majority of Americans.

    However.. your comment is absolutely intriguing- perhaps Americans ARE more conformist (than say their British counterparts) when in foreign situations where they know of the preconception that Americans are "selfish/ignorant/obnoxious". I have certainly felt those sentiments and adjusted my behavior accordingly, most often by conforming! My boyfriend used to hate that when I first came to the UK I would say "thaynkyu" rather than "THANk you."

  60. A really interesting one- unrelated to our experiment- is "recovery service." After 3+ years living in the UK, my (American) boyfriend's car broke down on the side of the highway(motorway). Trying to figure out how to get a "tow truck" was nearly impossible because the service is a "recovery service"!

    ...Or, colloquially, the "breakdown [service/van/man]". Whilst I imagine the section heading in the Yellow Pages is "recovery service", I'd have thought that was unlikely to be used too much in speech. I think I say "the breakdown", as in "My car won't start; I'll have to call the breakdown".

  61. Sell-by date is BrE? I'm a 22 year old from the Pacific Northwestern United States (Washington, specifically) and that term has always been familiar to me.

  62. I thought month-day-year was only American when written as number?

    Most British newspapers use the form October 9, 2015. That's also the way I was taught to date letters when I was at school in the seventies. Also, it's common in old British TV shows, films and books
    When did day-month-year (in words) become the "standard" British form?

  63. BrE (Scot, 60+). I’m no longer sure what my preferred date format is (it varies) except that where possible, I always use the month name (possibly abbreviated) to avoid confusion. The issue of conformity is interesting. I have been working with American colleagues for nearly 30 years, largely via written exchanges (documents and reports, rarely letters). I find that for numerical date formats, Brits will use US styles, and vice versa, attempting to be helpful, or to meet perceived expectations.
    The YYYYMMDD date format (as part of a file name) as a means of sorting files chronologically is a colossal red herring: most modern systems like Windows will append a date to a file automatically, and it’s easy to sort chronologically, alphabetically or whatever. Using the date as part of the file name just uses up space better used for words that actually tell you what is in the file. I also find that those who use the numerical date as part of a file name tend to put it at the start, so that you have to expand the file name tab before anything in the name that is actually useful becomes visible. They also seem to abhor spaces in file names, using underscores instead. Aaaaaargh!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)