How to Write Dates that Can Be Correctly Understood by an International Audience

Date Formats and the Usability of Your Site

How to Write Dates that Can Be Correctly Understood by an International Audience

by Christopher Heng,

A date is a date. How different can it be around the world? If you think that, you'll probably be surprised by this article. Dates are formatted differently around the world, and if you are not careful in how you write them in your website, your web pages may confuse your readers and even cause serious misunderstanding.

The Diversity of Numeric Date Formats

Take a date like 8.5.2008. Depending on the part of the world you're in, that date can mean August 5, 2008 or 8 May 2008. If you have ever seen the variety of date formatting options in your operating system (be it Windows, Mac OS X, Linux or otherwise), where dates can be formatted MM/DD/YY, DD/MM/YY or even YYYY/MM/DD, you'll know what I mean.

Numeric date formats are ambiguous if you're publishing a website. Websites are unlike your local newspaper. When you publish a site or a blog, you have an international audience. You are automatically speaking to the whole world. Your visitors or customers are probably accustomed to their local date formats, and when they encounter your site, they will instinctively read your dates in the format they are used to. To avoid misunderstanding and confusion, it's best to write your dates in a way that will be interpreted correctly, no matter where those readers come from.

How to Write Understandable Dates

The simplest way to write dates that can be understood by anyone in the world is to write the month portion of the date in words instead of numbers. For example, say "August 5, 2008" or "5 August 2008" instead of 8.5.2008 or 5.8.2008. When you do it this way, your dates are instantly unambiguous. It doesn't matter if the numbers for day come before the month ("5 August 2008") or after ("August 5, 2008"). Use whichever arrangement you're most familiar with in your country; the moment you use words, that date can no longer be misinterpreted.

Some people don't want to specify the month in words because they fear that it makes their dates understandable only by people who read the language the date is written in. That argument, however, doesn't make sense. No matter how you look at it, your site will always be written in a particular language. Write the month in the language that the rest of your web page is in. If your visitors can read the rest of the web page in that language, they can also read the date. Otherwise, they aren't even going to look at your date anyway.

If you are one of those who insist on using a numeric date, I think that the numeric date format that yields the least ambiguity is the YYYY-MM-DD format. That is, a date like 2008-08-05 is probably going to be interpreted by most people as 5 August 2008. I personally feel, though, that a date like "August 5, 2008" or "5 August 2008", where the month is given in words, is much easier to read (and faster to visually scan) than a string of digits.

Usability and Professionalism

Although dates are only a minuscule part of web design, it's one of those little things that improve the usability and professionalism of your site. Best of all, it's something that requires almost no effort to implement.

Copyright © 2008-2018 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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