Month or Day

Let me tell you about this picture, and why I absolutely hate it. Where I’m from, we put the month first. Now I know that people in different places have different ways of doing things, but representing it this way makes no sense to me. See it’s the same as when you talk about which temperature scale you prefer. At the end of the day there’s very little logic to it, and it has a lot more to do with your upbringing than it does to any objective reasoning. People keep arguing about which is “objectively” better, but what they’re actually arguing about is just which one they prefer, and what reasons they’ve come up with to remember that. So for example the people who put the day first have come up with this pyramid, because if you think about it for a half a second, it almost makes sense, but only as a way to remember, not as the basis for the rule. “Roy G. Biv” kinda sounds like some dude’s name when you spell it out like that, but we don’t put rainbows in that order BECAUSE of Roy G. Biv, we invented Roy G. Biv because of the order that the rainbow is. Same thing here. The pyramid isn’t why the dates are written that way, the pyramid is an easy way for them to remember which way it is. When you think about it a little longer though, the reasoning starts to fall apart.

We write dates from left to right, first of all. Not top to bottom, and we’ve got LOTS of different ways to write them, or say them when talking to people. Let me give you a few examples.

“The next meeting is on the 15th.” Day alone

“My family is going for vacation in July” Month alone

“Columbus discovered America in 1492” Year alone

“My birthday is on the 25th of May” Day Month

“I was born on the 25th of May, 1995” Day Month Year

“Thanksgiving is on October 11th.” Month Day

“The Stonewall Riots began on June 28th, back in 1969” Month Day Year

“I need you to babysit the kids starting at 5:30 next tuesday” Hour Minute Week Day

“Good morning! It is 8:30 on Thursday, June 3rd, 2021” Hour Minute Weekday Month Day Year

“My Father was born back in 1960, on November 2nd” Year Month Day

I could probably think up dozens of other ways to arrange time in a sentence in a way that makes sense, but the point is if you look at it, the pyramid doesn’t explain MOST of the ways we talk about dates, and importantly, all of those sound natural when someone says them. Even the Day Month Year order sounds okay when we’re talking out loud.

The problem comes when we start writing it out numerically. We use a number system which has the units on the farthest right, tens just left of that, hundreds before that, and so on and so forth. The biggest number comes first, because it is the most pertinent. In fact, once you get high enough, we start rounding away the units and other small numbers. When something costs 1499.99, it makes more sense to us to just say 1500, and not worry about the difference. The problem I personally have is when you write the dates “Day Month Year” you’re doing the opposite.

When you have 36 apples and you get one more, do you get 37 apples? Or do you get 46 apples? It would depend on where you write the units. I think most people are pretty comfortable with the smaller Units on the right, and the bigger Tens on the left. Now when the date is 6/3 and the next day rolls around, should it be 6/4 or 7/3? Importantly you’re NOT wrong if you say it should be 7/3, because if that’s where you put the Days, then that’s how it gets added. The thing is, just like most people are comfortable with the larger digit on the left when writing numbers, it would be reasonable to assume that most people would expect Months on the left, and Days on the right. The problem comes when a European hears that, understands the logic behind it, and then says “Okay but then why do you put the Year after the Days then?” That’s where these things require a bit more of an explanation.

Now both of the main arguments can agree with Year being last, but why is that? Why put the year last, when by my logic, the year should be first? Well because… in most cases, the year doesn’t need to be there at all. Think about it, when I’m saying we’ll meet up again on Tuesday, I’m not going to tell you “in June,” and I’m DEFINITELY not going to include what YEAR I want to see you. It’s this coming Tuesday. I should hope you know which year I’m referring to. So in that case, we can write the date as [2021] [June] Tuesday [the 8th]. We don’t need the year or month because those are implied by the fact that we’re talking about a small time scale here, and the 8th is implied because that’s the date that Tuesday is. If it was instead the week after, we’d say Tuesday the 15th. Or just the 15th, with [Tuesday] being implied, or Next Tuesday. As far as I can tell, there’s 11 different timeframes that humans typically refer to when they’re talking. Century, Decade, Year, Season, Month, Week, Weekday, Day, Hour, Minute, Second. We’ll usually round off the seconds because they’re too small a timeframe to be very useful to us unless we’re like “give me like 30 seconds” or something like that. Minutes and Hours get cut when we zoom out a bit, and I mean centuries and decades are almost never useful to refer to in most cases, so they get cut too, and if we do ever use them, usually they’re the ONLY timeframe we use. “Week” is like when we say “next” tuesday, or “3 weeks from now” and usually it also gets cut because it gets redundant. Weekday is relevant for close dates, but it also gets cut a lot, due to same thing, redundancy. Although we as humans sometimes include the redundancy just to help other people get the information. If they forget that it’s the 15th, at least they know it’s a Tuesday, so they can look at their calendar and hopefully that’ll jog their memory, or if they forget that it’s a Tuesday, that’s okay because they know it’s the 15th and THAT’S a Tuesday.

So why did I go over all this. The year is still last, and I still haven’t explained why. I think it’s important to note that most of those elements can be rearranged and it still makes sense. We hear in crime shows “What were you doing at 6:30 on the 14th of November” which puts the hour first, then minute, day, month in that order. But it still makes sense, right? Well when we’re talking about dates, we again, almost never include the year because it’s not usually relevant. It doesn’t make much of a difference if all the days we’re talking about are going to be within this year. But I’m not complaining about “Day Month Year” in the context of conversation, because again, it’s totally possible to sound normal putting most of these elements in any order. I’m complaining about it in the context of writing the date.

When you work at a job for a little while, you’ll file your files by what day they came in. Then when a new month begins, you’re going to start a new drawer for that month, or you’re going to put a separator in there, or something. When a new year rolls around, you’re going to get a new cabinet. I mean probably not exactly like that, but you understand what I mean. If you’re looking for a file, you first search by year, then by month, and then by day. Year isn’t last, right? Well no… not when you think of it that way. But if your job requires you to keep let’s say 13 months worth of filing in order to refer back to it, you’re more likely to search for the file by month, not by year. “January 13th… Oh yeah in 2020.”

And then we start working with computers. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most of the time, your files are sorted by name, not by date. Now you CAN sort by date, and then the argument is moot, but if you’re naming a file you make every single day with the day it was made, you’re not going to title it “March 13” or at least you shouldn’t. The reason being what happens when you look back over those files. “I need the file I made around Christmas, which is at the end of the year, so I’m going to look at the bottom of the list.” No actually alphabetically, December is near the top of the list, coming right after August… obviously. (The order of months being 04,08,12,02,01,07,06,03,05,11,10,09 for those curious) So we write the month as a number, and we put the month first, so that when it gets arranged alphabetically, it stays in the correct order. You want the file from January 13th to be followed by the file from the following day, not the file from February 13th. And the year in this case doesn’t matter, because once you’ve got 365 files in one folder, you’re probably going to just make a new folder for the next year. If you do put the year on the file’s name, you CAN put it on at the front, but since we already know what year the files are, based on the folder they’re in, we can put the year at the end. That way if you send a file to someone, they know they’re getting the file from the right year, but the more important information of Month and Day come first. When you see the date 06/03/2021, you aren’t even going to LOOK at the year number, so it’s irrelevant.

So yesterday I tried explaining all that to my good friend Robert from the station here, and he decided to completely gloss over any and all of the completely valid things I was saying and says “Okay so then you’re saying either Year Month Day, or Day Month Year, right?” and then when I said “no year can be first or last, but Month always has to be before the day, because it’s the more important number.” To which he said I had absolutely no logic and was contradicting myself. So allow me to do my best to un-contradict myself.

If you put together every single 25th in a year, and see what happened on those days, there’s probably very little through-line between them. It’s hard to really gauge what it means to be “25th.” It’s just an arbitrary number that humans decided would be fun. There could be 4 months of 93 days each or something like that, and “day 63” would be very different between each month. However, when you put all the January days in a row, all of a sudden there’s a trend there. You can see that they all share similar temperatures and snowfall and whatnot, and you can take a look at which ones stand out, and why. There’s something about “January” that has an effect on things. Even if we renamed the month, or changed its length, January means something, 25 does not. That’s why we put the month first, so that we have the context of “this is the timeframe I’m talking about” before we put the specificity of the individual day onto it, then after that oh yeah also “2021.” Yes there is ALSO something very relevant about the year, and it does also mean something, but usually it’s such a big timescale that it doesn’t come into play. We also say that Mother’s Day is “The Second Sunday in May” We put the Week number, then the Weekday, then the Month. You could instead say “In May on the second Sunday” but that’s a bit more clunky sounding, isn’t it? This would seemingly contradict what I just said becuase “there’s nothing tying the second week of any given month together, so why not say the month first?” It’s a question of relevance and importance, not a question of bigger or smaller. When you’re having a conversation, the more important timeframe comes first, which 9 times out of 10 ends up being “month, day, year,” in that order. When writing dates down, you put month number first so that it will be arranged correctly when you sort by number, and you put year at the end because usually it’s “important” but not nearly as relevant or important as the month or the day.  The annoying thing I suppose for some people is that it’s context-sensitive, and they don’t like that you can’t just draw a pyramid around it all and say “that’s the rule, deal with it.” But I know something that Robert will never disagree with me on.

When you talk about what time it is, you start with the hour, because that has a lot more bearing on what the specific light level or temperature will be. If you started with the minute, people would call you crazy. Now… When you’re saying what time it is… Do you put “AM” or “PM” at the beginning, or the end? That’s right, we can all agree that AM or PM goes at the end. That information isn’t as relevant because if you’re living in that moment you already know which one it is, but if later on, you want to talk about it, it might be relevant to have that specificity there. So we put it at the end. Just like with the Year. That said, according to the pyramid shared at the top of this post, and according to Robert, we’re crazy for saying 8:30AM, rather than the obviously more correct 30:8AM. Because if you think about it like a pyramid, the smallest unit should go at the top. Or you could go with the “Robert Telling Donny To Be More Consistent With His Own Logic Of Big Before Small” AM8:30. Now there is a way that 30:8AM makes sense, if you say “The bottom of the 8AM hour.” Bam. You did it. You made something which looks absolutely wrong when written numerically, sound actually normal. But there’s no way to make it sound or look normal if you put AM at the front, so even if you may think it’s “logically inconsistent,” that’s just the way it is. The rule is “Do what sounds best to you” but in my opinion the rule of writing dates down should be “Year either first or last (but it’s gonna look weird if it’s first, let’s be real), Month, then Day.” Because 6/3 plus 1 day should be 6/4, not 7/3. “Oh but if you put year last…” shut up. the year has a bracket around it, it’s not a number you think about. 6/3(21) plus 1 equals 6/4(21). You can put the (21) on the front if that makes you more comfortable, but it’s better to think of the year like “AM” or “PM.” it’s a letter. It goes on the end and the minutes keep counting up one by one even though there’s something “after” them. Yes eventually you get the weird 12/31(21) plus 1 equalling 01/01(22), but you also have the weird 11:59AM plus 1 minute equalling 12:00PM. And then the even weirder 12:59PM plus 1 minute equalling 01:00PM.

TL:DR, if you put days first, that’s fine. I don’t think that’s the best way to write dates because of filing, but if it makes sense to you, that’s fine. Just don’t act like it’s “more logical.” Nothing humans do is logical, especially not when it comes to writing dates and times.