Saying dates

Posted by on November 17, 2009

© illu24 - Fotolia.comI have recently been asked why we say years the way we do. Why, for example, do we say nineteen hundred (1900) but two thousand (2000)? The recently released film 2012 (pronounced twenty twelve) has highlighted this question. ‘What will happen in the 22nd century?’, the questioner continued. ‘Will we be saying twenty one hundred and one (2101) or two thousand one hundred and one, or will we stick to twenty one oh one?’

Of course it is impossible to say how usage will change in the future. It is even hard to make reliable statements about current spoken usage without access to a very large corpus of spoken English, but I’ll have a go. My impression is that this confusion all started with the millennium, aka The Year Two Thousand (2000). Before that fateful year came along we all spoke happily of nineteen fifty five (1955) or twelve twenty one (1221) and no one thought anything of it (though years before 1000 did give us pause: I think we tend to say the year eight hundred (800), or eight hundred AD just to be clear that we are referring to a date and not just a number). But we say one thousand, two thousand, not ten hundred or twenty hundred, so it would sound a bit weird to say the year twenty hundred. People therefore became accustomed to referring to the year 2000 as two thousand, and having started on that path it maybe became difficult to switch back to the previous system. Most people have therefore stuck with two thousand and two (2002), two thousand and three (2003) etc, even though it is perfectly possible to say twenty oh two, twenty oh three (on the same pattern as 1902, which as far as I know is always said nineteen oh two). Indeed, if I remember rightly there was something of a campaign to get the latter form accepted on the grounds that it was more logical, and at least some (all?) BBC newsreaders say twenty oh nine (2009) rather than two thousand and nine.

For 2010 on it seems that most people are happy to say twenty ten (2010), twenty fifteen (2015) and so on, and it is hard to imagine that people in the future will say two thousand one hundred (2100) etc rather than twenty one hundred. We shall have to wait and see. Of course, since this and all other ways of numbering dates are the result of historical accident, it may be that future events will lead to a complete change in the way the years are both counted and said.

As for why this way of saying years arose in the first place, I suspect it is simply because it is easier and quicker – try saying 1777 both ways to see what I mean.

I’d be interested to hear your views on this topic.

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Comments (9)
  • I suspect that the switch from the ‘old’ system to a new one at the year 2000 may have happened partly because of the significance of that year, i.e. the move from one millennium (now did I spell that correctly?) into another. As the years go by they lose something of that significance and the move back to the ‘old’ system comes quite naturally.

    Posted by Kati Sule on 17th November, 2009
  • I tend to agree with you that most people will go for the double digit system (twenty one hundred and not two thousand one hundred). Mind you, non-native speakers might most probably “transfer” from their native tongue and use the extended form. Spanish, Portuguese and French speakers will be clear examples of that.

    Posted by Stephan Hughes on 17th November, 2009
  • A couple more examples of how we say years. A friend came up with the song “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” – yes, really – by a duo called Zager and Evans, which was in the charts in 1969. I remember it, so that dates me as well as him. That’s said ‘twenty-five twenty-five’, of course. In the opposite corner is the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this case I can’t imagine that anyone ever says anything other than ‘two thousand and one’.

    Posted by Liz Potter on 18th November, 2009
  • “Two thousand” has three syllables; “twenty hundred” has four. “Twenty-oh-nine” has 4 syllables; “two-thousand-nine” has three (although “two-thousand-and-nine” has four).

    On the other hand, “twenty-ten” has three syllables, and there is no other reasonable construction with as few. And if the evolution of English has proved nothing else, it’s that we are lazy speakers. There’s no contest: “twenty” beats out “two-thousand” for the remainder of the century.

    Posted by Steve Hall on 24th November, 2009
  • Here’s somebody else wondering how we’re going to be calling the next decade: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/07/end-noughties-name-next-decade

    Posted by Kati Sule on 10th December, 2009
  • Since we have started the decade changing the way of saying the years I think that we must continue it using the same form as we do it. It could be risky if we decide to change it now.

    Posted by María Jesús Heranz Martínez on 10th December, 2009
  • English language used by almost all people in the world becomes the simplest way for communication. Your dictionary is a good friend for everyone who desires to talk about everything necessary for life, was, is and will be updated by your team of best teachers. We love Macmillan dictionary. We need it every day.

    Posted by dangkhoa nguyen on 17th December, 2009
  • I don’t think non-native speakers will “transfer” from their mother tongue. As a speaker of Portuguese I have never done that, and that’s probably because we learn how dates are said in English so we just get used to them. Why should/might it be different in the future? Each language has its own usage, and students are usually taught that.

    Posted by Priscila Laterza on 17th December, 2009
  • I think every language on the earth has its own way to the other when it has been used for a long time . So does the English language because it’s easy for everybody to use in everyday activities to deal with other people. The numbers “one two three” become ” quanh tu ti” in Vietnamese, or the French words”dire/bavard” “dia/ba hoa” in Vietnamese. 2010 is translated in Vietnamese” hai ngan muoi”; 2011,”hai ngan muoi mot”( The Vietnamese phrase has four sounds while the English six syllables). But I agree that each language has each usage, in actual fact, when that usual langue gets its own way to connect to real life, it’ll change in the way it’ll do. In fact we needn’t worry about how we use the saying dates. Let them be done when they’re used.

    Posted by dangkhoa nguyen on 18th December, 2009
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