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.)