English English language Grammar Style Usage

Are these dates of-putting?

Q: I’ve been reading a book that often uses this construction: “in April of 1887.” The “of” strikes me as superfluous, but is it wrong, as an editor I knew used to insist? I can’t find a rule in the usual publishing stylebooks.

A: Yes, this “of” isn’t necessary, but it isn’t necessarily wrong either, despite criticism from some usage authorities.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd. ed.), for example, considers the preposition “superfluous in dates.”

Garner’s suggests that “December of 1987 should be December 1987,” and that “February 2010 is better than February of 2010.”

We aren’t told why the “of”-free version is better, however. Apparently the judgment is based on conciseness—if a word can be dispensed with, it should go.

But we disagree. While it’s true that “of” isn’t required here, we don’t think it’s incorrect—and we’ve found no good reason to think it is.

Both The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style and Usage (16th ed.) say that where only the month and year are given, no comma is used between them. But they don’t say that “of” can’t be used.

In our opinion, this isn’t a matter of right or wrong. A writer’s decision to use “of” in a date or leave it out is simply a style choice.

For instance, “of” inserts a rhythmic beat that can give a measure of dignity to a sentence. Here’s what we mean:

“The images, sounds and stories of the second Tuesday in September of 2001 will be seared forever in the nation’s memory” (from Sept 11, 2001, an anthology compiled by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies).

And sometimes adding “of” to a date can make a sentence sound informal or conversational: “Aggressive stocks have really tanked since June of 1983” (from the New York Times, 1984).

The usage is found in literary writing as well: “In June of 1845 Emerson was writing to Elizabeth Hoar about a new enthusiasm” (from The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, 1941).

For one reason or another, writers often choose to insert “of” between the month and the year. All of these examples appeared in the news during the first couple of weeks of August 2015:

“This isn’t the first time something heartwarming has happened at the restaurant that opened in December of 2013” (the Fresno Bee).

“In December of 1988, this culture of violence came to my very doorstep” (Huffington Post).

“The government had a deficit of $94.6 billion in July of 2014” (Reuters).

“Durham wrote that, in April of 2010, the FBI ‘tasked’ a mob  informant ‘to go see Gentile and engage him in general conversation’ ” (Hartford Courant).

A usage like “April of 2010,” with “of” preceding the year, may be a clipped version of older formulations:

“in March of the year 1781” … “in February of the year 1742” … “in the August of 1750” … “in December of the year 1832.” (All examples are taken from searches of 18th- and 19th-century literature.)

And “of” has long been used before the month in day/month formulations:

“the fifth day of May next”  … “on the 15th day of September last”… “the 22nd of October”  … “the 14th of this month.”

So all things considered, we see no reason to avoid “of” in dates, unless you want your writing to be clipped and fat-free—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Speaking of dates, you may be interested in a 2012 post of ours about how to punctuate them with commas, and a 2009 post on the use of the suffix “-th” in dates (as in “September 6th”).

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