That Time of ‘Year'

How to Write Expressions With the Word “Year” and Other Time Periods

With the end of 2010 and the start of 2011, the word “year” will be coming up a lot in our communications in the next few weeks. Here’s a rundown of helpful guidelines related to some common gremlins with “year” expressions as well as other time expressions that can trip us up.

Do any of these cause confusion for you?

New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s and new year – “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day” are capitalized proper nouns for the names of a holiday and a preholiday period, and “New Year’s” can refer to either, but the “new year” is simply the new year and lowercased.

  • Paul is off on New Year’s Day.

  • What are you doing on New Year’s Eve?

  • Elyse is going to a New Year’s party.

  • Happy new year!

days – Always use cardinal numbers – numbers used for counting that don’t use the endings “st,” “nd,” “rd” or “th” – in dates unless the date is preceded by “the.” The use of ordinal numbers – numbers that are used for indicating rank or order and that do use the “st,” “nd,” “rd” or “th” – when the date isn’t preceded by “the” is a common error that results from the way we pronounce dates.

  • Mike went to the show on April 3.

  • Mike went to the April 3rd show.

months – When a month is used with a specific date, use the abbreviations “Jan.,” “Feb.,” “Aug.,” “Sept.,” “Oct.,” “Nov.” and “Dec.” for these seven months, but spell out the other months. Also, spell out a month when it is used with a year alone and don’t separate the year with commas.

  • Elvis was born on Jan. 8, 1935.

  • Charlotte called on Feb. 3.

  • Rita visited in March 2005 and July 2008.

years – Use numerals to write years. When a year is written with a month and day according to the style used in American English (see below), set off the year with a comma or commas. Also, in AP style, years are the exception to the rule that numerals should not be used to start a sentence.

  • Christine was hired in 2005.

  • Ronda arrived on Nov. 9, 2010.

  • 1999 was a year to remember for Amy.

There are two basic ways to write dates with years – the month-day-year style, which is the most common style in American English, and the day-month-year style, which is the predominant style in British English. In the month-day-year style, commas should be used before and after the year. But in the day-month-year style, no commas should be used.

  • American English Date Style: Kurt departed on May 10, 2010, and returned two days later.

  • British English Date Style: Kurt departed on 10 May 2010 and returned two days later.

year-end – This word is hyphenated both as a noun and adjective.

yearlong – One word, with no hyphen.

decades – Use numerals to write decades. Use an apostrophe to indicate numerals that are left out of decades, but don’t use an apostrophe to form the plural of decades.

  • The economy soared in the 1990s.

  • Kim was born in the ‘70s.

Of special note is that some people consider the first decade of, for example, the 21st century to consist of the years 2001-2010 while others think of the years 2000-2009 as constituting the first decade. Technically, in terms of the calendar we use, the last decade didn’t end until the end of 2010. Conceptually, however, many people tend to think of any current decade as including the year divisible by 10 that it is named for – thus the 1990s include the year 1990, but not the year 2000. But even though 10 years have actually passed since January of 2000, as long as you include that year in your evaluation of the past decade, you’re not wrong in speaking about a decade. A “9” feels like the end of something and a “10” like a fresh start. It’s psychological, and there’s nothing wrong with it when we’re treating the concept of a decade informally. For this reason, it’s OK to consider a decade as either the years 1 to 0 (1981-1990) or 0 to 1 (1980-1989).

Note, too, there is a special problem with referring to the first decade of a century in the same way as other decades. The “2050s” is clear in identifying that decade, but the “2000s” could be taken to refer to the whole century instead of the first decade. There is no consensus by editors and grammarians on a solution for this, but the best they’ve come up with for now is “the aughts.” If you use this term, add an explanation to clarify you’re referring to the first decade.
centuries – Lowercase the names of centuries and spell out numbers less than 10.

  • Elaine was born in the 20th century.

  • The fossils date to the second century.

Are any of these “year” terms tricky for you? Do you come across any you think are misused? Please share your thoughts.