Commas with dates: Lessons from Queen Victoria

A belated Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadian readers.

In today’s lesson we’ll review the rules for punctuating dates—specifically, the use of commas with dates. (The Canadian history lesson is bonus.)

1. To express a specific date, use a cardinal number (1, 2, 3, etc.), even if the number is pronounced as an ordinal number (first, second, third, etc.)*

Canada Day is observed on July 1 unless that date falls on a Sunday, in which case July 2 is the statutory holiday.

2. An exception to this rule is when a day is mentioned by itself, without the month or year; in that case, use an ordinal number and spell it out.

The Charlottetown Conference began on September 1, 1864. It adjourned on the ninth.

3. In the month-day-year system (American), use a comma before the year; in the day-month-year system (British), do not use a comma.

The federal Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867.
The federal Dominion of Canada was formed on 1 July 1867.

4. In the month-day-year system, use a comma both before and after the year if it occurs in the middle of a clause; in the day-month-year system, do not use any commas.†

The Dominion of Canada came into being on July 1, 1867, upon royal proclamation by Queen Victoria.
The Dominion of Canada came into being on 1 July 1867 upon royal proclamation by Queen Victoria.

5. If only the month and year are given (without a day), do not use a comma (this applies to either system).

British Columbia joined Confederation in July 1871.

6. When the day of the week is added and the date is essential, don’t add a comma after the day of the week. If the date is non-essential, add a comma after the day of the week.‡

By Wednesday September 7, 1864, the delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island gave a positive answer to the Canadian delegation to join them.
Since July 1 fell on a Sunday this year, the statutory holiday was Monday, July 2.

7. If a specific day (such as a holiday) is given with a year, do not use a comma (in either system).

Canada Day 1980 marked a special occasion because this is when “O Canada” was established as Canada’s national anthem.

8. To avoid ambiguity, do not use all numerals for dates in text (such as 7/1/1967—which in the US means July 1, 1967, but elsewhere January 7, 1967); instead, spell out the month.

not: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on 2/11/1867.
not: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on 11/2/1867.
but: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on February 11, 1867.

9. If a date comes at the beginning of a sentence, use a comma after the date.

On March 29, 1867, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.
On 29 March 1867, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.
On March 29, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.

10. Finally, always use numerals for a year unless the year begins a sentence, in which case spell it out (because you never start a sentence with a numeral, as we saw earlier).

Canadian Confederation refers to the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
Eighteen sixty-seven can be considered the year Canada was born.

Standing guard for proper punctuation,
Dirk

dirk_kievit@editors.ca
www.DirkKievit.org

These ten rules were compiled from various paragraphs in the Chicago Manual of Style. The example sentences were either taken or adapted from the following online sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Confederation
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_Day

*Unfortunately, Queen Victoria did not heed this rule when she proclaimed on March 29, 1867:

“We do ordain, declare, and command that on and after the First day of July, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-seven, the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, shall form and be One Dominion, under the name of Canada.”

Of course, she’s excused since I hadn’t posted this blog yet.

(She also spelled out the name of the year in the middle of the sentence, which breaks rule #10—not to mention her excessive use of capitalization.)

†Note that I said in the middle of a clause, not the middle of a sentence, for even in the day-month-year system, the year may be followed by a comma if the date occurs at the end of a main clause:

The Dominion of Canada came into being on 1 July 1867, when three British colonies united and became Canada’s first four provinces.

(see also the example with rule 9)

‡Admittedly, this distinction between essential and non-essential is somewhat fuzzy. I haven’t been able to find a better explanation, however. Any advice, anyone?

(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Discretion is advised when using this website.)

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Commas with descriptive phrases

Welcome back to my blog. Today’s lesson is commas and how to use them when you have two ways of referring to the same person or place.

Let’s start with a warm-up exercise and you’ll see what I mean.

(By the way, all my examples today are taken from today’s news stories from various online sources.)

Insert commas in the following sentences where needed. (Some sentences may not need any commas.)

    1) Science fiction author Ray Bradbury dead at 91.

    2) David travels to Sendai the city nearest the epicenter of the quake where he witnesses the dynamic relationship between science and nature.

    3) The suspect a Caucasian man in his 40s stomped out of the store and drove away in his blue Ford pickup truck.

    4) The storm quickly tracked north, said CBC Calgary meteorologist Danielle Savoni.

    5) Ray Bradbury a giant of American literature who helped popularize science fiction with works such as “The Martian Chronicles” died on Tuesday at age 91.

In each of these examples, a person or place is described in two different ways: often a proper name and some kind of descriptive phrase. For example, in sentence (1), which is the heading of an article, the topic of the story is described both by his proper name (Ray Bradbury) and by a descriptive phrase (science fiction author).

Let’s review the rules for using commas in such situations.

Rule 1: If the title or descriptive phrase precedes the proper name or main phrase, do not use commas.

This applies to examples (1) and (4) above, where a descriptive phrase or title precedes the name.

    Science fiction author Ray Bradbury dead at 91.

    The storm quickly tracked north, said CBC Calgary meteorologist Danielle Savoni.

Here are two more examples, both correctly punctuated without commas:

    I think we’ve played some good hockey and the bounces haven’t gone our way,” said Devils forward David Clarkson.

    “We think the new phones can compete against cheap Android models,” said Pohjola analyst Hannu Rauhala.

Rule 2: If the title or descriptive phrase follows the personal name or the main phrase, use a comma before and after the phrase.

This applies to examples (2) and (5) above.

    David travels to Sendai, the city nearest the epicenter of the quake, where he witnesses the dynamic relationship between science and nature.

    Ray Bradbury, a giant of American literature who helped popularize science fiction with works such as “The Martian Chronicles,” died on Tuesday at age 91.

It also applies to example (3) where the person is identified simply as “the suspect” and further described as “a Caucasian man in his 40s.”

    The suspect, a Caucasian man in his 40s, stomped out of the store and drove away in his blue Ford pickup truck.

Of course, if the descriptive phrase comes at the end of the sentence, close it with a period rather than a comma, as is done in this example:

    Bradbury published more than 500 works including “Fahrenheit 451,” a classic novel about book censorship in a future society.

Bonus question:

News editors don’t always get it right.

What’s wrong with these sentences? (The first one is a caption that appeared with a photo.)

    David in conversation with his friend, Keibo Oiwa, cultural anthropologist, writer and a keen observer of Japanese life.

    Singer John Mayer … said he was “really humiliated” by the song “Dear John,” written by his former girlfriend country-pop star Taylor Swift.

(See answer below.)

Dirk

dirk_kievit@editors.ca
www.dirkkievit.org

(Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Please understand that I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of all images on that site.)

Answer to bonus question:

In the first sentence, the comma before the proper name should be removed. Correctly punctuated, the sentence should read:

    David in conversation with his friend Keibo Oiwa, cultural anthropologist, writer and a keen observer of Japanese life.

(The phrase “cultural anthropologist, writer and a keen observer of Japanese life” also describes Keibo Oiwa and since it follows the proper name, it is properly separated from the proper name by a comma.)

In the second sentence, a comma should appear after girlfriend. Correctly punctuated, the sentence should read:

    Singer John Mayer … said he was “really humiliated” by the song “Dear John,” written by his former girlfriend, country-pop star Taylor Swift.

The main phrase “country-pop star Taylor Swift” is correctly punctuated without a comma: the descriptive phrase “country-pop star” precedes the proper name. But this whole phrase describes the phrase “former girlfriend” and should, therefore, be set apart with a comma.