A letter from the future

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This arrived in my snail-mailbox a few days ago:

I wish they'd send me some stock-exchange listings and sports scores from late July 2014 — the early re-subscription fees would be well repaid.


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    Would you have balked if it had said, "Your subscription expired 12-10-13"?

    Isn't it about time that the date formats mm-dd-yy and dd-mm-yy are abandoned in favour of unambiguous formats? As a Brit I have to translate 07-18-14, just as Americans have to translate 18-07-14. There are plenty of sensible unambiguous formats around, such as "18 Jul 2014" or "2014-07-18".

    Taking this post and the last one together, I am reminded of Churchill's quip (or was it Shaw or Wilde?) about two nations divided by a common language.

  2. David Y. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    There's nothing ambiguous about that particular date, though.

    More importantly: http://xkcd.com/1179/

  3. David Y. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    Er, about the year, that is.

  4. David Y. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    Let's pretend I'm still asleep.

  5. Levantine said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    Another system I've encountered uses Roman numerals for the months (e.g., 18-VII-14 for 18 July 2014), which is unambiguous, though it presents a new problem for those who aren't very comfortable with Roman numerals. I'm not normally one for advocating one usage over the other, but since the rest of the world is in agreement that dates are best written dd-mm-yy, surely it's the American system that presents unnecessary difficulties. It's interesting that the US customs form they give you on flights to the States (which has to be filled in by all, including American citizens) requires the dd-mm-yy format.

  6. Ken MacDougall said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Xkcd has something to say.


  7. Ken MacDougall said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    Poking my finger in my eye for not reading comments above carefully.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    The particular date 07-18-14 is unambiguous, but the format is not.

    As for the actual topic of the post, there's also the clash in "your current subscription expired", since an expired subscription isn't current.

    If the use of "expired" had happened just once I might think it a typo. S and D are next to each other on the keyboard. Twice makes me think non-native speaker who doesn't have their tenses straight.

    Or maybe just a mental error and a lack of adequate proofreading.

    [(myl) I figure it's a time management problem.]

  9. Faldone said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

    The big advantage of ordering the date in big-endian order {(yy)yy-mm-dd} is that the date is then sortable. Middle-endian is just silly.

  10. maidhc said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    I've always been puzzled that the US celebrates the Fourth of July. Shouldn't the holiday be called July Fourth to be consistent with the US date format?

  11. stanbot said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

    In my work, I speak to a number of Canadians and have to check date information (DOBs, Expiry dates) and have found that no one in Canada seems to have decided on a format. I've heard all the following variations:
    "The 12th of the 10th of the 13th."
    "2013 twelfth tenth"
    "10 12 13"
    "13th 10th 12th"
    "December 12th 2013"
    "12 October 13"
    "13th year, 10th of 12th"
    "10th month 12th of 13th"
    and so on…
    Sometimes they're unambiguous but often there is at least some follow-up question required. This also leads to a lot of mismatches between official records. The license might say 10/12/1975 while the birth certificate says 12/10/1975.

    Frankly, a group can decide to use a series of absurd facial expressions and bird noises, as long as it is consistently ordered.

  12. Garrett Wollman said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    A sadly common practice among magazine publishers in this country, although that one rather more blatant about it than most. Typically you will start to receive "your subscription is about to expire!!!!!!1!" notifications anywhere from 11 to 23 months ahead of the actual expiration date. I assume the intent is to fool people who don't read the letter closely into providing the publisher with additional working capital by extending their subscriptions into the next decade. It's dishonest, bordering on fraudulent, since the pragmatically reasonable interpretation of "your subscription is expiring" is "within the next month", not "eight months from now".

  13. Ellen K. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    Maidhc, I don't know the history of why we call it the 4th of July, but as far as present usage, it makes sense to distinguish the 4th of July, the holiday, from July 4th, the date on which the holiday falls. There's no reason the name of this holiday should match the date any more than it does for any other holiday (Christmas, New Year's, etc.). Again, that doesn't explain the history, but I imagine it comes from a time when usage wasn't as fixed and that one format stuck for our Independence Day's nickname, and the other for how we say our dates. Not really anything odd about it.

  14. dagny said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    At one point on November 6, after Rick Renteria had been announced as manager of the Cubs effective the following day, for a while his Wikipedia page said something like "on November 7, 2013 (which is the future), Renteria 'was' announced as manager of the Cubs"

  15. D.O. said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    Well, apparently Prof. Liberman's subscription has expired on the verge of World War I. This little trouble in Europe is responsible for a) why Prof. Liberman failed to renew his subscription and b) why this notice has been sent with such a delay.

  16. Bethany Dumas said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

    "A sadly common practice among magazine publishers in this country, … Typically you will start to receive "your subscription is about to expire!!!!!!1!" notifications anywhere from 11 to 23 months ahead of the actual expiration date. …." YES – drives me crazy! Also, "lifetime memberships" sometimes "expire." Check AARP.

  17. Alan Gunn said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

    @ Garrett Wollman;

    There's a special tax rule for publications that lets them treat subscription payments as not being income until the publications are delivered. (In most other cases, prepayments of income are taxable when received, a rule that differs from the financial-accounting rule, but which makes sense for tax purposes). That tax break is probably a large part of the reason they push so hard to get you to pay early (and why it's publications that do it and not other kinds of businesses).

  18. Y.G. said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 5:29 am

    Someone should let Keith Chen know about this.

  19. Jeff Moore said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    If everyone would just learn three easy kanji/hanzi, we'd all have efficient, easy to read dates. 2013年11月17日. It's the ideal system! All of the units are labeled, and they're all in descending order. You can even add 時, 分 and 秒 to the end if you want to get more precise. Young western adults might start tattooing dates on themselves, but that's just a price we'll have to pay for efficient and accurate dating.

  20. Graeme said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 7:07 am

    Higher Ed hey? At least a year ahead of more lowly humankind…

  21. Victoria Simmons said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    @maidhc– I agree with Ellen K that saying "Fourth of July" helps distinguish it from from the date on which it falls. But it is called both Fourth of July and July 4th ("Come in for our July 4th savings!"), and there is in fact no rule about how we refer to dates in speech. Americans use "the 17th of September" or "September 17" about equally, I think.

    Also, "the Fourth of July" is more euphonious, as in:

    I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
    A Yankee Doodle do or die
    A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
    Born on the Fourth of July

    –and is also on the model of "Fifth of November" (Fawkes Night).

  22. Tim Morris said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    Not really having to worry, at my age, about the 22nd century, I've been using a standard date format for posting book reviews and columns on various websites that I oversee: just like the international standard invoked by xkcd but without the opening "20." So today is 131117. I've been doing that for ten years, with the result that in sorted lists the files always appear in order of date of posting.

    But I hit upon that by accident. It seems to me that there could be all kinds of individual conventions others find just as useful or "natural," hence mass global confusion :)

  23. George Lane said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    I'd be willing to bet that Americans' referring to our holiday as "the Fourth of July" is largely due to the influence of the George M. Cohan song, "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy."

  24. Peter said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    @George Lane: from a quick and dirty Google n-gram graph, it looks like “Fourth of July” was already the commonest form all through the 19th century, long before Cohan’s song came out in 1904.

  25. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 3:19 am

    Too bad about those Google results, because they spoiled a most elegant theory. All of those foreign holidays have little poems associated with them:

    Remember, remember the Fifth of November
    Gunpowder, treason and plot

    The twenty-fourth of May is the Queen's birthday
    If you don't give us a holiday we'll all run away

    So George M. Cohan could have provided the rhyme to support the date.

    I'm with XKCD on date formats, but I got seriously annoyed with Excel this afternoon when I was entering some dates. Why is it I have to change my country to New Zealand to get the ISO standard format? (Not necessarily NZ, but it's the one that comes up at the head of the list.)

  26. dainichi said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 4:23 am


    "the rest of the world is in agreement that dates are best written dd-mm-yy".

    I and China are not in agreement, just to mention a few.


  27. dainichi said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 4:29 am

    I mean, I and China are not in agreement with that.

  28. Levantine said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    dainichi, fair enough, though it remains true that the USA's use of a middle-endian format is, by global standards, aberrant. Both ascending and descending make sense to me, but to have the month at the start just seems counterintuitive.

  29. Brett said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    As an elementary school student, I noted the oddity of the American dating format, but I got used to it. Now, I find much stranger the use of the term "middle-endian" to describe it. I know its standard terminology, and I've seen it before. However, it always strikes me as ill-formed, because I read "big endian" as being structured (big end)-ian. "Big end" is a semantic unit, whether it refers to which end of the egg you open or where you put the most significant bit. The reference to Gulliver's Travels is still very salient when I think about those terms, and it's sort of a plot point that eggs don't have a middle end.

  30. Levantine said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    Brett, I agree with you as regards 'middle-endian', and I used it only because it's the conventional term.

  31. Theophylact said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    The ISO format that Munroe suggests works fine for computer-ordering of dates (as long as they're between January 1, 1000 and December 31, 9999). Slash is not an acceptable punctuation mark in a filename, hence the use of hyphen.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    Jeff Moore: I mastered the ability to read dates given with those handy kanji helpers when I was a kid in Tokyo some decades ago. However, at least in those days the year (while given in Arabic numerals) was quite frequently not the Anno Domini year but the Showa Era year (e.g. "50" for the year we gaijins conceptualized as "1975"), which required some getting used to.

    A great project for corpus linguistics would be to track the decline (and perhaps help figure out reasons for the decline?) of the old deictic style for referring to months in certain contexts, where one would e.g. say in business correspondence that you were responding to the addressee's letter "of the 5th inst." or "of the 26th ult." Was the decline in usage on the same timeline throughout the Anglosphere or were there US/UK/etc. differences? Note FWIW that this puts day before month . . .

  33. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

    I've occasionally noticed periodicals whose nominal dates are much later than when they get published. (In particular, they want a particular issue to stop being the current issue at the point when the marked date arrives; furthermore, they want to get the next issue to stores in time for the store to notice the package and put the magazines on the shelf; and they want to account for potential delays in the mail.) Clearly, you're already too late to be able to learn how you should teach a summer session in 2014, but you can renew your lapsed subscription now and be all set for the fall.

  34. AntC said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    @Theophylact as long as they're between January 1, 1000 and December 31, …
    Note that up until the C17th, the New Year number started on March 21 (quarter day). Some time in the middle of Pepys's Diary, the convention slipped to starting January. (Claire Tomalin mentions it as causing enormous confusion in understanding documents of that time, in her biography of Pepys.)

  35. Mark Dunan said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    @J. W. Brewer – I remember taking a US history course in college where we had to read a lot of military diaries and letters from George Custer's infamous Litle Bighorn expedition, and in the process having to rapidly familiarize ourselves with "ultimo", "instant", and "next" in that context. I had never seen them before that.

    Remember that back when the USA was still a British colony, dates were written (at least some of the time) month-day-year.

    Here's the New England Courant from August 7, 1721:


    And this from 1704:


    And several more bridging the colonial and independent eras:


    I wonder if, had the ultimo/instant/next standard survived, date expressions would have naturally gravitated toward putting the date before the month in all cases. As it is, it's simply a case of the old standard remaining untouched, not a case of the Americans intentionally being different.

    And @ J. W. and Jeff – As a long-time resident of Japan, I was disappointed when several newspapers decided to change their numerals from kanji to European over the last few years, supposedly so that articles would take up fewer characters (since two digits can fit into one square) and thus they could increase the font size. In doing this, they've increased ambiguity. Writing "50年" could mean "the year 1950" or "Showa imperial year 50" but also "50 years" (when it precedes something like 間 or 目). In kanji, at least in newspapers, the style without the powers of 10 written (五〇年 =1950) always means an abbreviation of a four-digit year, and with them written it's not (五十年 means year 50 or 50 years)

    I was thrown for a loop recently when reading an article about a certain young entrepreneur and what he wanted to accomplish in "20年代", which I first assumed to mean "his twenties", but in fact meant "the 2020s". These could be distinguished, and readability increased, if the writer were able to use 二十年代 for the former and 二〇年代 for the latter.

  36. Hanaguma said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    @Brett, the oddity of the term "middle endian" is a Good Thing[tm], because it emphasizes the oddity of the date format that puts a non-existing end (one that isn't actually an end) at the front end.

    In defense of the format, it's hopefully not too far off the truth when I explain it to myself as coming from a time when a date including all three parts was rarely needed, so it is actually a big endian month-day format with the year added as an afterthought. If one were to accept this explanation, a comma might be preferable as the year separator, e.g. "07/18,14".

  37. Hanaguma said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    @stanbot, my coming to Canada is rather more recent than the 1975 you give as an example, but I have never encountered the order month-day-year on any official document here, from the federal government or the province of Quebec. Other provinces' MMV.

  38. stanbot said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

    @hanaguma, the difference between the documents is usually down to human error, such as seeing 3/5/75 vs 5/3/75. More than likely, someone somewhere was using a different format, missed the instructions on the form, and it ended up on an official file. Birth certificates tend to be more accurate and the inversion is more likely to occur on licenses. I think government agencies all use the same format by province, but individuals throw that out the window. I work with credit reports and the DOB can be pulled from any number of documents. It is not even that uncommon for there to be more than one DOB listed (primary, and a secondary listing of prior information such as names/addresses/etc.). I have even had people give me the date in one format and when I ask them to repeat, they change the order. The best way to be sure, in my experience, is to ask "Was that March, or May?" In the States, the vast majority use mm/dd/yyyy so only new people will invert something, which I see every day (I work with both US and Canadian clients). I have yet to find a consistent format used by Canadian clients in 7 years, not even by province.

  39. Lugubert said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 7:00 am

    Quoting Jeff Moore:
    "If everyone would just learn three easy kanji/hanzi, we'd all have efficient, easy to read dates. 2013年11月17日. It's the ideal system! All of the units are labeled, and they're all in descending order. You can even add 時, 分 and 秒 to the end if you want to get more precise. Young western adults might start tattooing dates on themselves, but that's just a price we'll have to pay for efficient and accurate dating."

    I agree, in principle (Google "principle Yerevan"). But there's no need for hanzi. For the date only, the Swedish way would allow 2013-11-17 as well as 131117. And you're of course free to add time, still computer sortable: 131117 12:46:30 here and now. Very convenient, but recently some Europeans confuse us on labels, making today (I think) 171113. Will my can of whatever expire today or in four years? Feel free to guess.

    I'm told that Chinese letter addresses follow the same principle in going from the most general item down to specifics, something like Country, Town, District, Road, Number, Surname, given name. I love consistency.

  40. Kate Y. said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    Another system I've encountered uses Roman numerals for the months (e.g., 18-VII-14 for 18 July 2014), which is unambiguous….

    A system which declares "the month shall be written with Roman numerals" is no less ambiguous than one which declares "the month-number shall be written in position (x)". Either way, correct understanding requires knowing an arbitrary convention.

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