US vs. European Date Notation

Markus Kuhn Markus.Kuhn at
Wed Jun 2 21:46:44 UTC 1999

Scott Harrington wrote on 1999-06-02 20:55 UTC:
> The feature on date notations appeared in the 01/06/99 edition of the
> Wall Street Journal, including a quote from our illustrious Mr. Kuhn.

Oh dear,

That strange quote from the illustrious Mr. Kuhn was all that survived
from a detailed >30 min phone interview that took place over a month
ago. It seems enough Y2K craze web pages point to my ISO 8601 summary
that even journalists now stumble across it. I didn't like the resulting
article much. Mr. Auerbach presented as THE international
standard format and yyyy-mm-dd as something only pushed by "a small but
influential band of global order-makers" (that must probably be us then
:-), ignoring the Japanese/ Chinese traditional Bigendianism completely.
He also ignored all the evidence that I listed on ISO 8601 quickly
gaining momentum in Europe. In general, the article has a clear tendency
to make fun of international standardization and it desperately tries to
mix in good old-fashined All-American [TM] patriotism to generate the
warm fuzzy national-anthem-singing feeling that Auerbach probably thinks
the reader seems to hunger for. The information on ISO 8601 served only
as a cheap background contrast in this image ...

Well, it wasn't the first disappointment I had with journalists who
probably know already what they want to write before they interview you.

In case you want to comment about the article to the author, his email

  Jon Auerbach <Jon.Auerbach at>

I'll attach a copy of the article below.

About the Bud label: Does 02Jan03 now mean 2003-01-02 or 2002-01-03? Who
cares, I am looking forward to collect Y2K bottles saying 02Jan100
anyway ... :-)


Markus G. Kuhn, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK
Email: mkuhn at,  WWW: <>

-------------- next part --------------
  Today, 01-06-99,
  Just Could Be a First
  For Sensible Dating
  For One Thing, a New Month
  Seems Like a Good Time
  To Work on Relationships
  By Jon G. Auerbach
  Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones

  From its red, white and blue emblem to its "Classic American Lager" motto,
Budweiser is unmistakably a U.S. brew. But every Bud label now includes a
feature about as American as a bathroom with a bidet -- a production date that
reads this way: 01Jun99.

  Vacationers returning from abroad these days face a task that also makes them
think in reverse: customs forms asking that dates be written in the
international day/month/year format.

  In a case of encroaching calendrical correction, the quirky U.S. style of
datewriting is giving way to the day-first standard used by most of the world.
Americans have led with the month for 200 years, but now many U.S. daters --
from consistency-obsessed computer programmers to internationally minded
citizensare switching, convinced their way is clearer or more sophisticated.

  "It shows you know something different than the guy flipping hamburgers down
the street," says James W. Baker, a convert to Euro-dating and a historian at
the Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Mass. Sayre A. Schwarztrauber, a
retired admiral in nearby Osterville, says putting the day first "makes
eminently more sense," adding: "It's the way of the world."

  This is true. But the move to international date-lines strikes some as a
needless concession to standardization wrought by pretentious one-worlders.
"It's snooty and it's not the American way," says Margaret Harris, principal of
the Owl School in Washington, D.C., where grammar-school students learn the
month-first method. Gary B. Larson, a proofreader and grammar maven in Seattle,
says people who have switched to the foreign style are "sellouts trying to be

  The shift is getting its biggest boost from the high-technology community,
which has been pushing to standardize dates because a single format avoids
computer confusion. Microsoft Corp. has dumped the U.S. style used in early
Windows software and is urging outside software developers to put the month in
the middle when writing code. The day-first format also is gaining converts
among a growing number of U.S. globetrotters sick of being out of sync.

  Merrill Lynch & Co. adopted the international style for all its research
reports last year. On the U.S.-invented Internet, international dating is now
widely favored. Plug a query into the U.S. AltaVista search engine, and the
results will be tagged day-first.

  The Webster's New World College Dictionary still favors "June 6, 1944" -- to
pick a date -- as the proper form. But the dictionary's executive editor,
Michael Agnes, says 06 June 1944 makes more sense because the day, month and
year are ranked from smallest to largest units. "There's a logic to it," says
Mr. Agnes, an unabashed dating multilateralist who says the dictionary will
change if enough Americans switch.

  Both the Modern Language Association style guide and the Chicago Manual of
Style support the day-first format. "You get rid of the comma that way," says
Joseph Gibaldi, director of book acquisitions for the MLA in New York.

  Historians and government officials can't say for sure exactly when the
renegade month-first system was adopted, or why the Americans picked it up.
Before the Revolutionary War, most colonists wrote their dates the way their
rulers back home in England did: day first. The American style began catching on
in the late 18th century as a small act of rebellion against the English crown,
culminating in the emphatic "July 4, 1776" affixed atop the Declaration of
Independence, says Mark Smith, a history professor at the University of South

  The month-first system has prevailed ever since. The U.S. military made a
retreat when it switched back to Euro-dating in 1943, partly to avoid confusion
when communicating with the Allies during World War II. "It's so much clearer to
say '20 January,' " says Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and

  Donald S. Sullivan, chief of time and frequency for the Department of
Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, the nation's
timekeeper, says the month-first system was never officially mandated by the
U.S. government. "Someone started doing it, and it became practice," he says.

  The changes in customs forms date back to 1995. Before that, the forms didn't
specify how travelers should write their birth dates and the day's date, so
people did it all sorts of ways, confusing the daylights out of customs
officials, according to Dean Boyd, a U.S. Department of Customs spokesman.

  But Stephen O'Leary, an investment banker in Boston, says the new forms aren't
much better. He often mistakenly uses the month-first style when making his
customs declarations, since the new requirement is "so illogical to the American

  Dating the American way is especially confounding to computers because many
software programs are tripped up by punctuation. A computer that sees a date
written as May 20, 01 might not know whether the entry is May 20, 2001 or May
2001, says Daniel S. Bricklin, a software developer who helped invent the
computerized spreadsheet. Shoving the month in the middle is unambiguous, says
Mr. Bricklin, who now writes all his documents using the international method.

  The U.S. format "is quite obviously crazy and also quite dangerous," says
Markus Kuhn, a computer researcher at the University of Cambridge (England).
Since 06/01/99 can mean either June 1 or Jan. 6, Mr. Kuhn says the renegade
American style can cause global chaos.

  And U.S. confusion. Soon after arriving in Boston two years ago, Peter
Torkelsson, a Swede from Gothenberg, was given a dental appointment for 03/04. A
benighted Mr. Torkelsson arrived for his appointment on April 3, a month late.

  Nancy E. Lowd, a business-development executive at Harvard Translations Inc.,
Cambridge, Mass., also learned about U.S. unconventionalism the hard way. She
once helped arrange airline tickets for European colleagues, but a U.S. travel
agent thought 03-02 meant March 2, not Feb. 3. The gaffe wasn't caught until the
last minute, and the entourage was forced to pay a fee to reschedule, prompting
one of the Europeans to place an angry call to Ms. Lowd asking, "What the hell
is wrong with you?"

  As if confusion between the two systems weren't enough, a small but
influential band of global order-makers is pushing an entirely new dating
system. The new format, called ISO 8601, puts the year first, month second and
day last. Today, for instance, would be 1999-06-01. ISO 8601 was adopted in 1988
by the International Organization for Standardization, a 130-nation,
Geneva-based federation dedicated to global conformity.

  Paul Devalier, a business analyst in Chicago, has been using ISO 8601 for
several months and thinks it's the only rational system around. Mr. Devalier
says he is "trying to educate as many people as possible" to adopt the
year-first format. He recently wrote to his credit-card company, First USA,
urging it to print his monthly statements using the new method. When First USA
didn't make the change, Mr. Devalier canceled his card.

Copyright (c) 1999 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.
Received by NewsEDGE/LAN: 6/1/99 2:14 AM

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