I found a misfiled receipt in the folder hanging next to my tax folder. It might have been there for a while – I’m not sure. I’m no fan of overpaying my taxes, so I looked for the transaction date to see if it’s from 2012 and I can use it in my next tax filing, or if I messed up on a previous year’s tax filing. A few seconds of scanning revealed
Seriously? Somebody thinks this string of characters conveys useful information. Or maybe this person just hates other people.
There are 6 possible ways to reorder the year, month, and day in a date. Fortunately, 3 of these orders are not in widespread use. The ones that are widely used are
So the plausible dates for my receipt are
2011 January 12
11 January 2012
November 1, 2012
So, either I messed up my 2011 taxes and can file an adjustment request, or I can use this receipt on my 2012 taxes. Great. Maybe I’ll try to invent some parallel-universe technology, try both approaches, and see how it all works out.
I know there are people who have strong opinions on the “correct” order for the year, month, and day. I care much more about clarity than some idealistic argument for the correct order. That said, here’s my pitch for year-month-day. We have a well-established standard for hours, minutes, and seconds. It goes from biggest (hours) to smallest (seconds). So, I like the following format going from years all the way down to seconds.
Yes, yes, I know I used “MM” twice. But you know what I mean.
Let me repeat that while I like this format, I could live with just about anything that is clear. And by clear, I don’t mean a format that is unambiguous to a computer; I’m not trying to solve the upcoming year 2100 or year 10,000 problem. I want a person who knows the commonly-used date formats to be able to look at a date and read it unambiguously.
A starting point that helps a great deal is to use 4 digits for the year. I know this takes extra space, but there seems to be space on my receipt for 4 lines of text begging me to enter some idiotic contest. I could win cash prizes and all I have to do is give them a name, email address, phone number, and implicitly agree to endless email and phone spam.
When we use 4 digits for the year, the only possible ambiguity is with the month and day. We can resolve this using letters for the month. All of the following are quite clear.
2011 Jan. 12
11 Jan. 2012
Nov. 1, 2012
However, writing letters for the month and a 2-digit year is not good enough: 11 Jan. 12 is not clear. If someone insists on using numbers for the month, then the only order that is unambiguous is
Many people don’t like this format. They are used to Nov. 1, 2012 or 11 Jan. 2012. That’s fine. Use one of these if you like. But unless you hate people, use 4 digits for the year and write letters for the month. Otherwise you’re making baby Jesus cry.