FAQs on Writing the Date

Barbara Collishaw
(Terminology Update, Volume 35, Number 2, 2002, page 12)

Frequently asked questions

Is there one correct way to write the date? Does the month or the day come first? Or is it the year? When should a date be written in numbers and when should it be written out all in words? What about abbreviations? What kind of punctuation is needed? Is it September 21st or September 21? Are there rules and standards or is it all a matter of personal taste and convenience?

The answers vary according to context; however, there is some agreement among the sources consulted.

Words only

In the most formal writing, such as contracts, invitations, plaques and presentation documents, it is usual to write out the entire date in words. Days and months are capitalized, but dates and years are not.

. . . on this sixteenth day of June, nineteen hundred and ninety-seven . . .
. . . Saturday, the seventh of December, two thousand and two . . .

The practice of writing a date in both numbers and letters, enclosing one form in parentheses, should only be used in contracts and similar legal documents. If such "legalese" is necessary, these forms may be used:

. . . beginning in 1999 (nineteen hundred and ninety-nine) and continuing until the end of 2010 (two thousand and ten) . . .
. . . beginning in nineteen hundred and ninety-nine (1999) and continuing until the end of two thousand and ten (2010) . . .

Words and numbers

In letters, academic papers and reports, most authorities recommend writing the month in full; they further agree that dates should be written either 14 July 2002 or July 14, 2002. Note that the day-month-year sequence has no comma but if the month comes first, there is a comma after the day and within a sentence, a comma also follows the year.

If the date is written in the order day-month-year, no commas are required before, after or between the components of the date:

The meeting of 10 January 1996 did little to allay tensions.

If, however, the order given is month-day-year, the day and year are separated by a comma, and the year should normally be followed by a comma within the body of a sentence or sentence equivalent:

September 11, 2001, was the beginning of a new era.
A new era began on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

If you are stating only the month and the year, do not insert a comma:

Treasury Board approved the submission in February 2002.

Source: The Canadian Style, 1997, section 7.20 (examples updated)

Cardinal or ordinal?

Although dates are read aloud as if they were ordinal numbers (September twenty-first), it is correct to write the number in either cardinal or ordinal form or, alternatively, to write out the whole date in words. Writing the date as an ordinal number if the year is included (September 21st, 2004, or September twenty-first, 2004) is not recommended. This should be changed to the cardinal form, September 21, 2004.

Cardinal and ordinal numbers in dates
September 21
September 21st

the 21st of September
Day-month order without year:
21 September

September 21, 2004
21 September 2004
Ordinal number with year:
September 21st, 2004
September twenty-first, 2004

Abbreviations and shorter forms

Some sources (including The Canadian Style) recommend always writing out the names of the months in full, and abbreviating them only in layouts such as tables, forms and references. If necessary, the months are abbreviated to three letters, as follows:

Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.

Notice that May is not an abbreviation and so is not followed by a period.

Other standard abbreviations for the months are used when space is a factor. They include one-letter forms where the meaning of J, A and M will be obvious from the month’s position in a chart or list:

J (January) F M (March) A (April) M J (June) J (July) A (August) S O N D

and combined one- and two-letter forms where more clarity is needed and more space is available:

Ja F Mr Ap My Je Jl Au S O N D

When years are abbreviated, use an apostrophe: class of ’99; flood of ’05 (but is that 1905 or 2005?). When decades are mentioned, write the word in full (the twenties) or add an s to the number; note that The Canadian Style recommends the forms without an apostrophe (the 1960s, the 70s) but other style guides consider the apostrophe optional (the 1940’s or the 90’s). When decades are referred to by special nicknames, both words are capitalized: the Roaring Twenties, the Dirty Thirties, the Swinging Sixties. Centuries are referred to in lower case:

twentieth century or 20th century

twenty-first century or 21st century

XX century not XXth century

XXI century not XXIst century

Numbers only

Many organizations and individuals opt for all-numeric dates, especially for lists, forms and data that will eventually be handled by computer. This not only improves readability for people who speak different languages, but makes it possible to perform sorting and mathematical operations without additional manipulation of the data. But, as Canadians are particularly aware, there are several ways to write dates in numbers. Europeans favour the day-month-year format, while Americans insist on month-day-year. How can this conundrum be resolved?

Fortunately the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has considered the problem and issued a standard, ISO 8601. It covers the date and time formats used in information interchange, although the standards for dates written in words are not addressed in that document. The Canadian federal government guidelines for all-numeric dates are those found in the Federal Identity Program Manual, chapter 1.2, which refer the information seeker to the current national or ISO standard (i.e. ISO 8601:2000).

According to ISO 8601:2000, both dates and times are written in decreasing order of magnitude from left to right. Dates are formatted YYYYMMDD (basic format) or YYYY-MM-DD (extended format). The basic format (without hyphens) is appropriate when computer readability and storage space are of primary importance, and the extended format (with hyphens) when the document is intended for general readers.

July 1, 2002 = 20020701 = 2002-07-01


  • The Canadian Style, 1997, Sections 4.17, 5.25, 5.14 and 7.20.
  • International Standard ISO 8601, Second Edition 2000-12-15. Reference number: ISO 8601:2000(E).
  • A Summary of the International Standard Date and Time Notation by Markus Kuhn (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~mgk25/iso-time.html) (www) (en)
  • Federal Identity Program Manual, 1990, pages 26 and 27.
  • The Gregg Reference Manual, Fifth Canadian Edition, 1999, Sections 345, 409-410, 437-439.

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