Coming August 7

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A reader asks why it is (as it seems to him) increasingly common for Americans to say "August seven" instead of "August seventh" or "August the seventh" for 08/07/09 ("Coming August seven to a theater near you!"). I have done no investigation on this (it would need intensive quantitative corpus study over dated corpora that do not have Google's propensity for collapsing common typographical variants). The reader may be wrong to think the practice has been increasing: the Recency Effect has not been repealed. So I offer nothing but the following observation. For some time there has been a trend toward abolishing typographical clutter in print ("Mr Jones" for "Mr. Jones"; even "ie" and "eg" for "i.e." and "e.g."), particularly though not exclusively in published American English; and American English also idiomatically eliminates various prepositions here and there (as in "See you Tuesday" for "See you on Tuesday"). If such abbreviatory practices led to writing "7" for "7th" or "the 7th", spelling pronunciation might be responsible for the resultant habit spreading in spoken American English.

I have left comments open below; but try to avoid typographical clutter.

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51 Comments »

  1. JonW said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    This dropping of th/st/rd from dates is not exclusive to American English. When I joined the UK Civil Service I was given clear instructions that in The Service th/st/rd are not used when indicating dates. Although this does seem to be a specific quirk of Mandarin English (along with a strong preference for double negative constructions and the passive voice) which is not (yet?) standard in British English.

  2. Ramón Ruiz said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:26 am

    Being a Spanish interpreter and translator myself, I had always thought the typographical clutter was OK in English for abbreviations consisting of two letters, these being the first one and the last one of a word, as in mister: Mr Jones. Enlighten me, please.

  3. jake said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:51 am

    The answer is that 'Mr' is not an abbreviation: it is a contraction. Where the contraction begins and ends with the same letters as the original, the full stop can be 'lost' as the idiom has it.

    That's the British convention anyway , though observation is inconsistent.

  4. Martin said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    There is a 'rule' — which is enforced at least in some sorts of academic writing — in British English that the period is not used when the last letter of the word is part of the abbreviation. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbreviation#Periods_.28full_stops.29_and_spaces .

  5. garic said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:30 am

    I was under the impression that the move to abolish typographical clutter started in the UK and is more advanced there than the US (see here, for example: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/496/is-it-true-the-british-have-abolished-punctuation).

  6. Faldone said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    A cardinal number is used when the date is written out in full, even in middle-endian USn usage. Eg, August 7, 2009, not August 7th, 2009.

  7. James D said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 7:41 am

    Everyone knows it should be pronounced "the seventh of August"… ;-)

  8. Tlönista said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    I think it's just different usages rather than a general trend. After all, Americans say "seventh grade" where Canadians say "grade seven". And "Mr" for "Mr." is still something only a Brit would do.

  9. Chris Atherton said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    Marginally related: any thoughts on the permasubtitle "Search GI Joe" currently gracing TV showings of the G.I. Joe movie trailer?

  10. Chris said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    I haven't noticed this "trend" at all, and I live in the United States. (Which has a lot of nationwide media and ads, so if it were happening as a trend at all, it would probably be perceptible from anywhere in the US.)

    For most numbers, this could simply be not hearing the final "-th", if it isn't particularly loud. Using the cardinal would seem particularly odd for those numbers where the cardinal and ordinal *don't* just differ by a suffixed "-th":

    ? Coming August three to a theater near you!
    ? Coming August twenty-one to a theater near you!

    I'm pretty sure I would have noticed those forms if I had ever run across them, and I don't remember ever doing so.

    I would also find it quite odd to be asked what I did on the four of July.

  11. peter said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    JonW said (July 31, 2009 @ 5:14 am)

    "This dropping of th/st/rd from dates is not exclusive to American English. When I joined the UK Civil Service I was given clear instructions that in The Service th/st/rd are not used when indicating dates."

    The same instruction was given to new entrants to the Australian Commonwealth (ie, Federal) Public Service as long ago as 1978. The justification given for this rule was to enforce a uniform and uncluttered style in written documents.

  12. [ni:v] said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Is this in any way related to many Americans' pronunciation of "fifth" as "fith"? That's one I've never really understood.

  13. Zeno said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    I see a silver lining, if this trend is real. Since Microsoft foolishly decided to superscript the letters at the end of ordinals like 1st, 3rd, and 7th in Microsoft Word, people who use Word as their text editor are forever sending weirdly spaced messages. Maybe it'll happen less often in the future. (I know, that's a big stretch in seeking a silver lining.)

  14. language hat said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    I haven't noticed this "trend" at all, and I live in the United States.

    Same here.

    That's one I've never really understood.

    Really? Surely you can see that the /fθ/ cluster is somewhat difficult? Do you pronounce every phoneme in sixths, to take an even more cluttered example?

  15. [ni:v] said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    @ language hat:
    Thanks. I figured it was to do with ease of pronunciation, but I guess I wasn't clear: my confusion comes from the fact that this seems to only be a trend in American English….am I wrong to assume that? I've just never heard it from other speakers.

  16. [ni:v] said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    @ language hat
    Re: sixths, my pronunciation of "th" is more like a "t" anyway, being a speaker of Irish English, so that makes it slightly easier anyway! ;)

  17. KCinDC said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    JonW, Faldone, I don't think the question is about spelling. "August 7" is still pronounced "August seventh" in my experience.

    And yes, the Microsoft Word superscripting is nearly as annoying as the "smart" quotes that have resulted in near-universal use of an opening single quotation mark in place of an apostrophe in things like 'Twas and Class of '85. (Looks like WordPress is even doing it to this comment.)

  18. Brett said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:27 am

    As a regular viewer of both American- and British-made entertainment, it is my impression that the use of numbers alone in dates is much more common in British English. I had theorized that this was because when a date, written according to British convention, is read out, it generally calls for an additional preposition "of" (and possibly also a "the") when the ordinal is used, while the preposition may be dropped if a plain number is used. Very little clutter is eliminated by replacing "August fourth" with "August four," and there may be a loss of clarity. The payoff (in verbal cleanliness) of changing "the fourth of August" to "four August" is greater.

    The loss of clarity I alluded to above is particularly related to the numbers "two" and "four," which are homophones with other common English words. I wonder therefore whether the use of plain numbers rather than ordinals might be less common with these two days of the month. ("One" and "Eight" are also homophones for common words, but I suspect that they are less likely to lead to confusing sentences.)

  19. Ellen said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    As far as speaking, I say six rather than sixth because it's much easier, but I wouldn't say seven for seventh. I might write it that way, but I wouldn't speak it that way. (That from the middle of the USA.)

  20. Ken C. said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    I always thought Bush said the date as "September the eleventh", instead of "September eleventh" or "nine-eleven", so that he'd sound more "folksy". (Same with "TV screens" instead of "TVs". For most presidents, this would be silly paranoia, but with Cheney-Bush, probably there were some linguistics professors held without bail, primed to tell Judith Miller that Bush spoke like Just Plain Folk Real Americans.)

  21. Mr Punch said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    I haven't noticed a trend – but I'm not sure it's something that would strike me. I always (I think) notice "7 August," which seems downright unAmerican.

  22. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    As one very small piece of evidence against the idea that this is a recent phenomenon, I remember as a child in the early 80s noticing that some people said things like "September ninth" and some people said "September nine". I am from Western Canada.

  23. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    To amplify a bit on Geoff's reference to spelling pronunciation above: some American style guides insist that the only correct form for referring to the seventh day of September (etc.) in writing is "September 7"; according to these guides, "September 7th" is just flatly incorrect in writing, though "September 7" will be read as "September seventh", not "September seven". But you can see how the pronunciation "September seven" could arise as a result of the spelling convention.

  24. Stephen said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    I have heard the "August four" usage on multiple occasions. I believe I remember Joe Biden using it, possibly in this video, although I can't find the precise spot now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2yfARRF9Co.

    I would tend to attribute it to a spelling pronunciation, possibly influenced by a greater modern exactitude in giving dates and times, linking the cardinal numbers in the date with those in the time: August six, at three fourteen p.m.

    Nevertheless, I, and I think most people, continue to use the ordinal number. The CMOS seems to recognize both usages: "When specific dates are expressed, cardinal numbers are used, although these may be pronounced as ordinals."

    Compare French, which uses a mix of ordinal and cardinal in dates: 1st, 2, 3…: "le premier avril, le deux avril…" as well as the names of kings: "François premier, Louis quatorze".

  25. kip said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    The answer is that 'Mr' is not an abbreviation: it is a contraction.

    Surely if that were true it would be spelled "M'r"

  26. kip said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Personally, I started doing this, and saying "zero" instead of "oh", when talking to someone in a call center (like when I have to call my insurance or credit card company). It seems to be more easily understood. I have noticed that it is creeping into my not-on-the-phone voice, but I haven't noticed other people doing it.

  27. Robert T McQuaid said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    It seems necessary to say Joe Smith R.I.P., because RIP without clutter is an English word.

  28. Dan T. said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    I hate programs inserting so-called "smart quotes" too; it can totally mess up a message when it's sent through, or copied and pasted from or to, a program that doesn't properly handle non-ASCII characters, or which makes false assumptions about what character encoding is being used.

  29. stormboy said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    As a Brit, I always say (for example) 'August THE seventh' or 'THE seventh OF August' – 'August seven/seventh' sounds very American to me. Do Americans often not use the definite article when saying the date?

  30. Jonathon said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    I've occasionally heard the "August seven" usage, but it seems to me that it's a feature of older generations (specifically, people who are in their seventies or eighties now) and not at all a recent trend.

  31. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    That’s why everyone should configure their keyboards to conveniently input any Unicode character at will, not “smartly”. I can write ’Twas just fine, because it’s me doing it, not an algorithm. Also «⁠ ⁠like this⁠ ⁠» or „this” &c. (Linux users, google for “compose key”).

  32. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    This sounds like the sort of thing you might encounter in American Business English, where the unstated goal (unfortunately) is usually to sound different rather than simpler (which would be good) or more complex (which is the usual result).

    If I had to guess, I'd say this trend (if in fact it exists) may have originated with the military, thence to government, and thence to business in general.

    This may explain why the usuage (may) be found colloquially amongst oldsters, ie the generation that lived through the vast militarization of the WWII era. Or perhaps it simply an artifact of an age in which telegrams were a common mode of communication.

    It is not, to my knowledge, colloquial amongst anyone else. (By which I mean me.)

  33. Bryn LaFollette said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    @stormboy: As a native speaker of Standard American English, It's not at all uncommon in American usage to omit the article when given a day of the month, but there's also nothing odd sounding about using the article either. However, I must say that I'm not at all familiar with anyone where I'm from using the ordinal number for the date, and while "August seventh" or "August the seventh" or "The seventh of August" all sound perfectly natural, "August seven" sounds downright odd. That said, in writing it is not at all uncommon to leave of the ordinal suffix, so, although a date might be written August 7, 2009 or 8/7/2009, it would still be pronounced "August seventh, two thousand nine. I think Chris nailed this exactly in his comment. I agree with other commenters, though, that the oddness of this alleged utterance sounds to me distinctly like "Government-ese" or like the fanciful usage of FBI agents or something along those lines. Definitely not typical, standard, or growing in use.

    Frankly, I wonder whether this is some sort of UK bias-based projection stemming from either a stigmatised Britishism neologism that is assumed to be an Americanism or an American spelling convention that is assumed to reflect the exact phonetics of it's realization as an utterance (which, based upon how often that is the case in English spelling of any stripe, is hilarious).

  34. dr pepper said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    I pronounce all the phonemes in `sixths', albeit the final s does come out a little weak.

  35. Ian Tindale said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    As it seems to be frowned upon as though some sort of deficiency, then it must be "the other lot" that are responsible for this mess (ie, whoever your lot isn't – you yourselves wouldn't stoop to this kind of thing, of course).

  36. Nathan Myers said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    In Northern California I hear constructions like "August seven" frequently, and the usage does seem to be increasing. I'm inclined to attribute the change, in the U.S., to increasing acceptance of Black English pronunciations. It's hard to find anything in it to complain about.

  37. John Lawler said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    @Language Hat: sixths was always my best classroom example of a long [s]. The minimal pair is "…, five, six, …" ([..sɪks]) vs "five-sixths", which always comes out as [..sɪks:] in contrast. Not exactly surprising in a consonant cluster like [ksθs] to find the [θ] between two sibilants disappear totally in fast speech. But as usual it has to be pointed out to an American (i.e, phonetically ignorant) audience what they're actually hearing and saying, as opposed to what they think they're hearing (and saying).

    As for August 7, I have no more information to offer than Arnold started with. I've always viewed it as a sort-of-formal or joke-formal way of writing and talking (leading occasionally to joke-morphology, as in "August oneth" as a pronunciation as August 1). Like all other ways of writing and talking, it's available to all writers and speakers in whatever ways and in whatever situations they please, and is just one way out of many of behaving, not anything special; the OTW Illusion is at least as relevant to the original question as the Recency Illusion, it seems to me.

    As Arnold also suggests, this wouid be an expensive hypothesis to prove or disprove, let alone explain (assuming there is a phenomenon to explain).

  38. Robert Furber said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    I've found a spoken example of this from 1964. It occurs at 3:05 in the first of the videos on this site:
    http://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/tuva/index.html#data=4|0||||
    It's said by the man introducing the speaker.

    So it can't be terribly recent.

  39. Robert Furber said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I can't edit the comment above, but the ||| symbols are an essential part of that URL, apparently, so clicking on it won't get you exactly to the right place.

  40. Christopher Sundita said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    It's common in Philippine English. When I was a kid, I used to say my birthday was "May Five." I mostly say the ordinal version these days, but every once in a while I use the cardinal one, especially when speaking with other Filipinos.

  41. Tony said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 1:02 am

    I don't know about spoken English, but AP style says to leave off the "th" in dates. Perhaps reading "August 7" in news articles has influence the way people pronounce it?

  42. Tim said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 1:24 am

    So, I was trying to figure out how I say "sixths", and I thought I might be simply missing out the first /s/ (i.e. /sikθs/). However, after saying it a few more times, I think that what's actually coming out of my mouth is pretty close to /siks/, but I'm putting my tongue into the /θ/ position in between the /k/ and /s/, without actually making the /θ/ sound. Weird.

  43. Rhoda said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    I'm an English press cuttings editor, and I occasionally have to read some American newspapers. The use of Mr. Bob W. Smith in U(.)S(.) newspapers always strikes me as surprisingly archaic and formal, because he would simply be Bob Smith in the UK.
    I find the dropping of prepositions odd though – when I read 'the President said Tuesday…' it immediately makes me think he's saying something about Tuesday, not that he said something on Tuesday.
    As to dates, I've noticed that it's become more common to write 7 July 2009, but it would still be pronounced as 7th.

  44. Nick Lamb said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    KCinDC, the ISO 10646 / Unicode people concluded that U+2019 RIGHT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK was the preferred character for an apostrophe and enshrined that in the standard. Your opportunity to object (via your national standards body) to this decision came and went.

    If you personally prefer U+0027 (the short vertical stroke used as an apostrophe, single quote, prime mark and numerous other things on mechanical typewriters) then you will need to fiddle with your software to leave that alone. In other people's writing you'll have to "suck it up".

    I can't post to this thread about ISO without also mentioning ISO 8601. Let's kill all those ambiguous legacy date formats, like the 08/07/09 in Geoff's example. Particularly on "use by" dates. A sealed product labelled "05/08" might as well say "Guess". Does it mean August 2005? May 2008? 5th August? 8th May…? It's not hard to use a little more ink and write unambiguously 2009-08-07.

  45. mollymooly said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 6:33 am

    The only instance that comes to my mind or cardinal dates is from the song "Pride (in the name of love)" by U2:

    "Early morning, April four / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky"

    Bono is Irish, but in a rock song about Martin Luther King he may have been trying (more than usual) to sound American.

  46. Mustafa Bir said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Here in Abu Dhabi I live just off 25th Street, which is just how it's written on the signs. No point in saying "Twenty-fifth Street" to the (almost always Indian or Pakistani) taxi drivers, though, as they will always mishear it as "Twenty-first Street", so I say "Twenty-five street".

    "Zero" is almost universally used instead of "Oh" when repeating telephone numbers in the UAE, as well …

  47. Bryan Rink said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    Regarding the "See you Tuesday" example, I imagine it comes from our commonly saying "See you tomorrow" or "See you tonight" where the preposition has been incorporated and completely forgotten about. So it doesn't seem so odd when we drop it in other cases as well.

  48. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    I’ve known the Mac keystrokes for “, ”, ’, and ‘ for almost twenty years (various combinations of option, shift, and left and right square brackets), and can type ’09 correctly. (I think Macs may even have once had a key binding for genuine prime and double-prime characters, as used for feet and inches, minutes and seconds of arc, etc., but they no longer seem to.)

    (Now we’ll see if WordPress pulls one of its usual stunts and arbitrarily reformats all my quotes…)

  49. KCinDC said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    Nick Lamb, please note my use of the word “opening”. I was referring to the use of the left single quotation mark—not the right, which is as you say the proper character to use for the apostrophe in non-ASCII settings. Various “smart” quote implementations, including that in Microsoft Word, produce that monstrosity when people type an apostrophe at the start of a word and it’s now reached the point where upside-down apostrophes seem to be more common than correct ones in phrases like “Election ’08”.

  50. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:52 am

    This reminds me of the way that I've heard Australian speakers pronounce dates. They'll sometimes pronounce "5/7" as "The fifth of the seventh", where an American (assuming they account for the order of the numerals) would pronounce it as "The fifth of July". Americans will often pronounce dates written in the American order as just two numerals, but never as two ordinals.

  51. bripearce said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    I have a sneaking suspicion that newscasters are being taught to drop many English words and grammar rules as "clutter", including: all forms of the verb "to be", the "to" in infinitives, "if", "when", short prepositions (especially "in" and "of"), the possessive "s", articles (unless padded with the meaningless "particular"), ordinal forms discussed above (th, rd). Both the language and journalism are debased, as precision is sacrificed for fashion (which dictates other confusing conventions, such as avoiding the past tense, skipping verbs altogether, larding on adverbs, and substituting long words for perfectly good short ones–e.g., "additional" for "more", "absolutely" for "yes", "available" for about a dozen older and shorter words depending on the context). I often only know what the speaker means because I read the same news already.

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