The Grammarphobia Blog

Dating service

Q: I am a proofreader at a law firm where the house style calls for a comma after a full date in a sentence. Recently I was reprimanded (mildly) for removing commas after the years in a list like this: “July 24, 2011, letter; February 16, 2012, memorandum; April 19, 2012, document , etc.” I contend that the dates here are being used as adjectives, and should not be separated by punctuation from the nouns they modify. Can you help me with this? Otherwise I will be forced to insert commas while my mind screams “NO.”

A: Our answer will disappoint you. As we’ve written before on our blog, “In the month-day-year style, we use commas both before and after the year (except at the end of a sentence): ‘The party on March 3, 2009, was a blowout.’ ”

And this is true whether or not the date is being used as an adjective, as in “The March 3, 2009, party was a blowout.”

Most American style and usage authorities follow this system, though not all. One dissenter, Bryan A. Garner, is an authority on legal writing, and his views may be of particular interest to you. We’ll get to them later.

But first let’s see what The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), one of the most widely used American style guides, has to say on the subject of “dates as adjectives”:

“Dates are often used as descriptive adjectives, more often today than in years past. … If a full month-day-year date is used, then a comma is considered necessary both before and after the year (the May 18, 2002, commencement ceremonies).”

Here the Chicago Manual adds that such a construction is awkward and “is therefore best avoided (commencement ceremonies on May 18, 2002).”

Later, the editors give examples of non-adjectival usage, like this one: “June 5, 1928, lives on in the memories of only a handful of us.”

We’re not sure the dates in your list can be called adjectives or not, but that’s irrelevant. Either way, we recommend that you retain the commas after the years.

Again, this convention applies only to dates that use the full shebang—month, day, and year. As we noted in that previous blog entry, you don’t need a comma if only the day and month, or the month and year, are given: “The March 5 party was a blowout” or “The party in March 2009 was a blowout.”

By the way, we’re describing the use of commas in the American dating system (month-day-year). In the British system (day-month-year), no commas are used.

Here’s an example of the British style from the Chicago Manual: “See his journal entries of 6 October 1999 and 4 January 2000.”

Now for that dissenting opinion from Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and editor of Black’s Law Journal.

In the third edition of his usage guide, Garner agrees with the Chicago Manual that using the full date as an adjective “is particularly clumsy.” But then he goes on to say:

“Stylists who use this phrasing typically omit the comma after the year, and justifiably so: in the midst of an adjective phrase (i.e., the date), it impedes the flow of the writing too much.”

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