July 29, 2010

No, not THAT sort of dating! I’m talking about dating blog posts, articles, magazine/journal issues etc. and dates used in documents.

I’m a great believer in Steve Krug’s mantra: “Don’t make me think!” so I try as hard as possible to make sure that I don’t use relative time and date words (like currently, recently, lately, last week/month/year, yesterday, tomorrow) UNLESS I also have a specific point of reference for that relative time and date.

In this blog, the date of the post is automatically added to the post, and I include a specific month and year when I add a statement about when I last checked the links in a particular post. Even so, if I say ‘last week’, that automatic date adds an extra processing step for a reader, especially a reader coming to the post long after its original publication — they have to think ‘Last week? When was that? Whose last week — mine reading it, or when it was posted?’. Then, to confirm when ‘last week’ was, they have to shift their eyes away from the content to the date stamp at the top of the post. But at least there IS a point of reference.

However, there are MANY websites where the content states a relative time, but gives NO specific date/time as a point of reference. For example, ‘Last month, <name of band> released their latest CD.’ There are two problems with this type of statement: the reader has no idea when ‘last month’ was if the article or web page isn’t dated, nor do they know which ‘latest’ album is being referred to, as the album isn’t named and nor is a date given. If this statement was in a newspaper, the problem isn’t so bad, as newspapers have a date on each page, which is the point of reference for the statement.

But non-commercial websites, in particular, are notorious for not dating content. Which means those researching information cannot figure out when something occurred. For some information, this isn’t an issue, but for a lot of information, the lack of a date is a real problem as it makes the content hard to verify and can lead to assumptions that may not be true. For example, let’s say you’re away from home. You read on a blog somewhere ‘Last week, <name of your town> was flooded’, but there’s no date reference. You might assume that the flood was only a few days ago and go into panic mode, whereas the flood may have been a few years ago.

Then there’s the issue of date formats. Much of the world — except the US and Canada — uses the day/month/year format, so 03/04/09 is 3 April, 2009 (or is it 1909? for genealogical researchers, a full year is essential). But in North America, where they use the month/day/year format, 03/04/09 means March 4, 2009 — a completely different date. So if you don’t know the origin of the blog, website, printed article etc. and come across a date like 03/04/09, how do you know which date is being referred to?

Outside the digital world, many magazines and journals do not print a date on an issue. Instead, they might use Volume #/Issue # or a season (e.g. Summer 2010, Fall 2009). However, volume/issue numbers without a month and year of publication, at least, are next to useless for the casual researcher.

Seasons are problematic because the hemispheres have different and opposite seasons, as well as different names (for example, in Australia we use ‘autumn’ not ‘fall’). If I see Summer 2010 on a magazine I’m not familiar with, I have to do several steps to figure out the approximate date of issue, thus breaking the “Don’t make me think” rule:

  • I have to check inside the publication to find out where it was published (US/Canada/Europe, or Australia/New Zealand/South Africa).
  • Once I know where it was published, I have to do a calculation in my head to figure out which months are meant by Summer 2010. If it’s a northern hemisphere publication, I figure they mean June/July/August; if the southern hemisphere, I figure they mean December/January/February. But there’s more…
  • If I really need a specific date, now I have to figure out an approximate day. The US (and Canada?) start their seasons on equinoxes and solstices (around the 21st of June for summer, for example), whereas in Australia the seasons start on the 1st of the month (e.g. 1st December for summer).
  • Update Tweeted by Kirsty T: Don’t forget that Summer 2010 in Australia likely means Dec 2009 to Feb 2010, but Dec 2010 is still a summer month in 2010!

As you can see, I have to do a LOT of thinking just to figure out the actual dates referred to by that Summer 2010 publication.

Then there’s New Year. If you read New Year 2009 does that mean 31 December 2009, or 1 January 2009? These dates are a year apart! The only way to be clear to the reader is to state the date in full.

And movable holidays like Easter. The dates for Easter 2008 are quite different to the dates for Easter 2009, Easter 2010 etc. Again, be specific and state the date or date range in full.

Finally, my husband has an issue with annual events like the Grammy Awards. He researches music information, so the 47th Grammy Awards is meaningless to him — he has to search other sites to find out the year in which the 47th Grammy Awards were held. Simply adding the year would help enormously in figuring out which previous calendar year the awards apply to — e.g. 47th Grammy Awards (held 13 Feb 2005) or just 47th Grammy Awards (held 2005) tells a researcher that the awards are for music likely produced in 2004.

You might think dating or not dating something is trivial, but it is a real problem for researchers. Researchers need a date, and that date should be written as clearly and unambiguously as possible so that they don’t have to think about what it really means. Lack of specific dates is also problematic for translators. You can see the steps I have to go through just to translate a North American date into one I can understand; just imagine what it’s like doing that for a different language or geographic location as well.

Update: Another potentially confusing date is Q1, Q2 etc. for the quarters of the year. But which year? The calendar year (January to December)? The financial year? (in Australia, that’s July to the following June, but in the US I think it is January to December; then add in the complication that some big companies have their own financial reporting year, which could go from April to March the following year! Talk about confusing!). Again, spell out the date/month range you’re referring to, at least in the first instance of Q1, Q2 etc.

Bottom line:

  • Avoid using relative time/date words such as recently, currently, last week, etc. UNLESS you also include a specific time/date reference.
  • Write the date out in full — 3 April 2009, or 4 March 2009 — instead of using a shortened date format that can be misinterpreted (such as 03/04/09). You can shorten the written months to Apr and Mar, if you need to save space/ink. Similarly, write out in full the months of the quarter range for Q1, Q2, etc. in the first instance.
  • Add a year, or a month/year to Volume/Issue (e.g. Vol 32, Issue 6, 2010).
  • Avoid using a season as a date, or, if you can’t avoid it, add the month range as well (e.g. Summer 2010 — Jun-Aug).

See also:

[Links last checked October 2011]


  1. The date is an essential component of “Just the facts, Ma’am.” I, too, am amazed at how difficult it sometimes just to determine the date. When you print from web pages, the printed pages often are date-stamped with the date you printed them, but that is absolutely no help in determining how old the information actually is.

    When I worked in R&D, and at a couple of manufacturing companies, everything that appeared in print was dated. No one seems to realize how useful that can be. It at least lets you know whether what you’re reading is current, or whether you should check for updates before you use or cite the information. Don’t they teach that in school any more?

  2. Lots of good stuff in here Rhonda; I can see why you got the recognition.

    Just for reference, the American date method is not universally used in Canada, and things are (slowly) moving to a more logical method. I hate getting cash register receipts with dates like 10-08-09: makes it so tedious to do accounting!

    I always use the YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM format so there is no confusion. Even better, dates in that format can be sorted without ambiguity by even a simple alphabetic sort. The 24hr time method is much easier for doing time math too: it is 15:17 as I type, and we’re 14 hours offset from home so it is 01:17 there (15-14=01). Try doing that with 3:17pm…

  3. […] blogged before about issues with confusing dates, but this time it’s about confusing […]

  4. […] no date on it as to when the message was first displayed, therefore anyone visiting the site has no idea […]

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