Rethinking date formats

When a style issue recurs, in either writing or design, decide how to deal with it, and then codify the result of that decision so that you can avoid rethinking it every time. Thus, while I have strong preferences in some areas, the one that trumps them all is to favour the dictates of the project’s style guide. Communication is a team sport.

Even in personal projects, the development of a style guide is invaluable. If nothing else, consistent usage allows for more complex search-and-replace tactics when working with text files. Which, for me, is most of the time.

But the decisions which form a style guide should be the result of thinking – about how to communicate or solve a problem, how to delight your audience – not the result of habit or bias. Recently, I discovered an unquestioned preference I wasn’t aware of; and it caused me to rethink how I format dates. It’s deep stuff, you’ll see.

Numeric dates

Let’s get these out of the way, because the choice here is clear. When writing a numeric date the best option is ISO 8601. In this format a date would be written like so:

2015-02-22

That’s the publication date for this post in ISO 8601. The format is year, followed by month, followed by day. Always. Without exception or variation.

This makes ISO 8601 the ideal format to use when date stamping computer files, print documents, and things that last a long time in the refrigerator, but not so long as to preclude a narrow window during which they still seem edible, but if you eat them, you will quite probably die.

ISO 8601 is a little lengthier than I’d like; and the initial year sends my brain in a loop. On the flip side, it sorts beautifully. And if you’ve ever come across a date like 08/06/04 and wondered whether that’s 6 August or 8 June or even 4 June, you can readily grasp why the unambiguous ISO format is preferable. Always. Without exception or variation.

Long dates

Things are not so clear when writing dates in full; conventions are is dictated by geography or cultural context.

For as long as I can remember I’ve followed American usage (MDY), which looks like this:

February 22, 2015

I don’t know why I’ve been using this format. My educational and professional backgrounds are about half-American and half-European; when it comes to such conventions, I can swing either way. But I’m so habituated to this format that using any other seems bizarre.

I realized this recently when a client asked me to replace the American-style dates on a website I was building with the-rest-of-the-world-style dates. This format (DMY) looks like this:

22 February 2015

Though it made perfect sense in the context of a project spanning many cultures and time zones, the request surprised me. Why would anyone choose this weird, ugly format?

Thus I realized I had been consistently using the MDY format without thinking about it. Working in American contexts prevented too much scrutiny of this bias. But I’m wary when I catch myself acting thoughtlessly.

I may be uniquely damaged, but I don’t think of time in the neat rows and columns of calendars. Rather, it helps me to think in “buckets of time”: today, tomorrow, this week, next week, next month, next quarter, in half-a-year, and so on.

When a date begins with the month – which is the medium bucket, between year and day – my addled brain can process the information with less effort. That sounds like it could be true; but it might also be a vain attempt to justify my bias bullshit.

On the other hand, to read a date in the DMY format my eye has to do a little dance.

When a date such as 22 February 2015 appears in running text I have to glide past the day to find out what the month is, only to back up and re-examine the day, before proceeding onward again.

If the date is positioned by itself, as on the publication date at the top this post, my glance will generally alight on the month, and then swerve in either direction, before doubling-back; an arduous process to collect only three pieces of information.

It’s hard for me to say whether this is the result of habit or a necessary outcome of how the elements are arranged.

While looking for something else, I happened upon a relevant passage in Strunk & White. Here is what the fourth edition of The Elements of Style has to say about the DMY format:

[This] form is an excellent way to write a date; the figures are separated by a word and are, for that reason, quickly grasped.

I’m not convinced, but typographic arguments are dear to my heart, and this one is reasonably persuasive. And conviction sometimes requires a leap of faith. Or at least a little dance.

Why this matters

It doesn’t; not in and of itself. As I implied at the outset, consistency matters more than the particulars of a style. What does matter is the ability to be aware of and to think through your own bullshit biases and habits; in writing and design, as in life. To remember to ask: why am I doing this, in this way? Why do I think what I think?

Dates formats are not that important – though I have it on good authority that a rung in hell is reserved for heretics, financial forecasters and the people who refused to use ISO 8601.

I’m trying out the DMY format on this site and have began using it elsewhere as well. I’m still not used to it. But for the moment, I’m content to observe my own discomfort.

Treading similar paths, Paul Robert Lloyd recently wrote:

[S]hould I find myself awkwardly positioning elements within a composition, I will try living with that decision for a few days rather than a few seconds.

Remember, finally, that you can’t outsmart your habits and biases. Only outlast them.

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