Formatting Numbers (Dates & Time) in Academic & Scientific Writing

In all academic and scientific writing, precise dates are far more effective than general references such as ‘lately’ and ‘in recent years,’ but if clarity is to be maintained, the format of dates and eras must be precise and consistent. To express a specific day, month and year, for instance, the format ‘11 August 2014’ is commonly used in British English and ‘August 11, 2014’ in American English. Ordinal numbers are generally only used when the day appears alone (e.g., ‘the trial took place on the 11th’), although ‘the 11th of August’ does replace ‘11 August’ or ‘August 11’ in some instances. All-numeral dates are best avoided in scholarly writing because of the potential for confusion – ‘11/08/14’ is 11 August 2014 for a British reader, but November 8, 2014 for an American one – so if you choose to use such a system, you should explain it in your paper and use it with the utmost consistency; in British English the forward slashes can, if you wish, be replaced with full stops (‘11.08.14’). Sometimes lowercase Roman numerals are used for months in this format, which eliminates the potential confusion (e.g., ‘11.viii.14’). The International Organization for Standardization uses the order ‘year-month-day’ for all-numeral dates, with hyphens or en dashes separating the elements (‘2014-08-11’ or ‘2014–08–11’); this format is often used in technical contexts.

For periods of time, decades are better expressed as ‘the 1960s’ or ‘the sixties’ than as ‘the 1960’s’ or ‘the ’60s.’ In formal running prose, centuries are usually written out as words (e.g., ‘the twenty-first century,’ ‘the twelfth century’ or ‘the second century BC’), but in notes, tables, references and the like, abbreviations can be used (as in ‘the 12th c.’ or ‘the 12th cent.’). When used as adjectives, centuries require hyphenation (‘a twenty-first-century vehicle,’ for instance, or ‘a twelfth-century manuscript’). ‘AD’ (for Anno Domini or ‘in the year of the Lord’) is not usually required, but when it does appear, it should be placed before the numerals in a date (e.g., ‘AD 1131’), except when the date is written out (as in ‘the fifteenth century AD’). ‘BC’ (for ‘Before Christ’) often is not required either, but it can certainly be used and should be when necessary to avoid confusion with other dating systems. When it is used, it should appear after the numerical date (‘310 BC,’ for example, or ‘10,000 BC’), and notice that whereas four-digit numerals for years do not use commas, BC dates of five or more digits do, as do BP (for ‘Before Present’) dates of five or more digits. ‘BCE’ (‘Before Common Era’) and ‘CE’ (‘Common Era’) are often used by authors who want to avoid Christian terms in dates; both abbreviations should follow the numerical dates provided (as in ‘156 BCE’ and ‘679 CE’), and so should the BP abbreviation when used (with ‘the present’ fixed at AD 1950).
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Words tend to be used to express periods of time, such as ‘the test lasted seven weeks’, especially if the number concerned is under the word/number threshold set for a paper, but numerals are generally used for exact measures, as they are in ‘a 30-minute trial’ or ‘a 30 minutes’ trial’ (both hyphenated and possessive forms are acceptable). Words are also the usual format for whole hours or fractions of an hour, in which no hyphens are needed (e.g., ‘eight o’clock’, ‘half past three’ and ‘a quarter to seven’). When using ‘a.m.’ (meaning ante meridiem for the time before noon; often ‘A.M.’ in American English) and ‘p.m.’ (meaning post meridiem for the time after noon; often ‘P.M.’ in American English), ‘o’clock’ should not be used as well: correct formats are ‘five o’clock in the morning’ and ‘5 a.m.’ ‘Noon’ and ‘midnight’ are more precise than ‘12 a.m.’ and ‘12 p.m.’, which can be confusing for readers.

The 24-hour clock avoids this potential confusion along with the necessity of using ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’ because ‘12.00’ is noon, ‘17.00’ is 5 p.m. and ‘24.00’ is midnight. When the 24-hour clock is used, it is best to use a full stop in the number to avoid confusion with a year consisting of the same numerals (‘the year is 1045’, but ‘the time is 10.45’), and the same applies to the 12-hour clock when minutes are included (as in ‘10.45 a.m.’ or ‘6.13 p.m.’); a colon is sometimes used (in North America, for instance) instead of a full stop (resulting in ‘10:45’).

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