Above the Law

ANSWER: It’s best without the th. An ordinal number indicates position in a series (e.g., first, second, fifteenth), and should not be used when writing a date. Any one of these forms is correct: May 29, 2013 (the American method); 29 May 2013 (the military or British method); or the 29th of May 2013 (acceptable but oldfashioned).

Generally, the military method is a good choice for prose and letters because it takes no commas {8 Sept. 2013}. (This is the style used throughout Garner’s Modern American Usage and Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage.)

In formal legal writing such as the statement of facts in a brief, the preferred form is May 29 (if it’s unnecessary to state the year). So if the year has already been identified, it’s better to write Salazar spoke with opposing counsel on May 29 rather than Salazar spoke with opposing counsel on May 29th. The first version is visually cleaner and tighter.

Sources noting the undesirability of using an ordinal number after the month go way back:

1908: “It is not necessary to put ‘th’ or ‘nd’ or ‘st’ after the day of the month, except in the body of a letter when numbers indicating days of months stand alone.” Sherwin Cody, How to Do Business by Letter 10 (1908).

1916: “Write the day of the month simply in figures; do not add -st, -nd, -rd, -th. These letters are unnecessary in the heading . . . . But in the body of the letter, after the date has once been mentioned, other days in the month may be followed by -st, -nd, -rd, -th, and the month omitted, to save repetition. Right: Your telegram of March 10 has just come in, and the order has been sent to the shipping department. The goods should reach you not later than the 12th.” Edward Hall Gardner, Effective Business Letters 30 (2d ed. 1916).

1950: “After the name of a month, use figures to express the day. {Your letters of May 3, 5, and 10 were answered in full on May 12.} When the day of the month stands alone or when it precedes the month, it may be written in figures with d, st, or th added, or it may be spelled out. {We enclosed a check for $100 in our letter of the 15th of April.} {In your letter of the 6th you asked for our price list.} {In your letter of the sixth you asked for our price list.}” Robert R. Aurner, Effective Communication in Business 629 (3d ed. 1950).

1965: “It is unnecessary, and may be considered wrong, to use nd, rd, st, or th. Wrong: April 1st, 1964; Right: April 1, 1964.” L.E. Frailey, Handbook of Business Letters 228 (rev. ed. 1965).

1972: “When the day follows the month, always express it in cardinal figures (1, 2, 3, etc.). On March 6 (NOT: March 6th or March sixth).” Rosemary T. Fruehling & Sharon Bouchard, The Art of Writing Effective Letters 200 (1972).

A few other notes about writing dates:

1. When writing just the month and year, don’t use of and don’t put a comma between the month and year. Write October 2014, not October of 2014 or October, 2014.

2. Use a comma after the year {the order signed on February 16, 2013, was sent to the client} unless the date is used adjectivally {the February 16, 2013 order was sent to the client}. Note: The Chicago Manual of Style considers the comma after the year necessary here {the February 16, 2013, order was sent to the client}, but recognizes that it’s an awkward construction and is best avoided by recasting the sentence.

3. Don’t use periods in a date – it’s harder to read {2.16.2013}. Use slashes or hyphens instead {2-16-2013} {2/16/2013}.

Sources:

The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.82, at 225; § 6.45, at 322 (16th ed. 2010).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 246 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 225-26, 579 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner, HBR Guide to Better Business Writing 160 (2012).
Garner, The Redbook § 1.10, at 10; § 1.81(b), at 50 (2d ed. 2006).

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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