Numbers in Dates: Should We Write July 4, July 4th, or July Fourth?

For those living in, teaching in, or hailing from Canada or the US, happy soon-to-be Canada Day and Independence Day! Canada Day is a federal holiday celebrated on July 1 that commemorates the
July 1, 1867, signing of the Constitution Act. Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. With these holidays fast approaching, the team at Sprout English and ESL Library has been busy creating new lessons, updating old ones, and blogging about related grammar and activities!

I chose my blog topic for today based on a question I had while editing ESL Library’s Independence Day lesson. The lesson included several instances of “July 4th”, and I had to decide if that was the best way to present dates. Should we use ordinal numbers (e.g., 1st, 4th) or cardinal numbers (e.g., 1, 4)? What do the style guides have to say?

July 1 and 4, not July 1st and 4th

Research to the rescue! The Chicago Manual of Style (sixteenth edition), section 9.32, has this to say:

When specific dates are expressed, cardinal numbers are used, although these may be pronounced as ordinals.

  • May 26, 2008, was a sad day for film buffs.
  • The Watchmaker’s Digest (11 November 2011) praised the new model’s precision.

What if you teach outside of North America? The New Oxford Style Manual says this:

Figures are used for days and years in dates. Use cardinal numbers not ordinal numbers for dates:

  • 12 August 1960
  • 2 November 2003

Do all the style/reference guides agree? Unfortunately, they usually don’t. For example, my old 1990 copy of Collins Cobuild English Grammar says:

Ordinal numbers can be written in abbreviated form, for example in dates or headings or in very informal writing. You write the last two letters of the ordinal after the numbers expressed in figures.

  • …on August 2nd

What do the masses say? A Google Battle between “July 4th” and “July 4″ shows that the latter is clearly the winner (July 4th got 157,000,000 hits while July 4 got 546,000,000 hits).

The Fourth of July, not the 4th of July (or the 4 of July)

If you are going to pull the ordinal number away from the month, it is best to spell it out, according to The Chicago Manual of Style. Write “the Fourth of July”. Note the capitalization of “Fourth”—this is because the Fourth of July is the name of the holiday (it is known as both Independence Day and the Fourth of July). Also note that we don’t say “the First of July” for Canada Day, so this isn’t an issue for us Canucks!

Conclusions:

  • For dates, it is more common to use the number without the endings “st”, “nd”, and “th”.
  • Write “July 1″ and “July 4″.
  • Remind students to pronounce “st”, “nd”, and “th” when speaking! Say “July 1st” and “July 4th” in spoken English.
  • Write and say “the Fourth of July”.

How did we come to this decision?

Our old house style did include dates to be written with the endings “st”, “nd”, and “th” in superscript following the date, but last year we changed our house style to remove those endings and only use the number.

As the editor for Sprout English and ESL Library, I often have to make style decisions like this. How do I make these decisions? Well, I do a lot of research in style guides, usage manuals, and online. I mostly follow The Chicago Manual of Style, as most North American editors do (outside of journalists, who mostly follow CP and AP). I also rely on my years of teaching experience to help me figure out the best and clearest choice for students. Last year, I thought that it would be easiest for students to see the endings, because then they could easily see how to pronounce the dates. But I’ve since changed my mind—after realizing that it’s more common to write dates without those endings, I wanted to present students with the most common way so that their own writing is as clear and correct as possible. My team agreed, so now we leave it up to the teacher to demonstrate the correct pronunciation.

Looking for lessons on Canada Day and Independence Day?

If you teach children:

  • Canada Day – a beautifully illustrated vocabulary lesson in our Word Bank section
  • Independence Day – a vocabulary lesson with a variety of activities in our Word Bank section

If you teach teens or adults:

  • Canada Day – a four-skills lesson with some interesting history and information about Canada
  • Independence Day – a four-skills lesson about the history of the Declaration of Independence

You can also try Tara’s free listening/writing activity, Independence Day Handwriting Activity – Sign Your John Hancock.

Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

6 Responses to “Numbers in Dates: Should We Write July 4, July 4th, or July Fourth?”

    • Tanya Trusler

      You’re welcome, Lucy. It’s confusing when there’s more than one way to do something and it’s more about which way is the most common—nobody really teaches us this stuff!

      Reply

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