The Grammarphobia Blog

Date lines

Q: I think it’s unnatural and pretentious when radio personalities say “on this date in history,” rather “on this day in history.” Would you please let me know the history if this construction and your feelings about it.

A: Common usage seems to be on your side. Both “this day in history” and “today in history” are far more popular than “this date in history,” judging from a few Google searches.

Unfortunately, we can’t provide an authoritative history of these three constructions, but we can speculate about them.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one example, and it’s of the “date” version.

It comes from Anthony Burgess’s novel Time for a Tiger (1956): “One dribbling patient was able to state the precise day of the week for any given date in history.”

Our guess is that some people say “this date in history” rather than “this day in history” because it’s more precise. To them, “this date” implies a month and a number (say, Dec. 11).

“Date” clearly has a narrower meaning in the OED, where its use in reference to a point in time is defined as “the precise time at which anything takes place or is to take place.” 

But “day,” when used in a roughly similar way, has many more definitions in the OED.

It can mean, for example, “a fixed date,” or “a specified or appointed day.”

It can also mean “a specific period of twenty-four hours, the whole or part of which is assigned to some particular purpose, observance, or action, or which is the date or anniversary of some event.”

It can even be used vaguely, as in “Shakespeare’s day,” “this day and age,” “the present day,” “those were the days,” and so on.

We’ve mentioned only a few of the many usages given in the OED.

But clearly, “day” can sometimes be used in place of “date.” So if you prefer “this day in history,” be our guest.

But we happen to think that “this date in history,” though less popular, is more precise and just as good.

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