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Back in the good old days, when writing a check, you could format the date however you liked. For ultimate clarity, I’d usually spell out the month’s abbreviation. For example, 21 Feb 1995.

But I suppose machines had trouble understanding these free-form dates. So a rigid numbers-only format was forced upon us. My bank insists on the format DDMMYYYY:

Though this might be great for machines, it’s awful for humans. It’s especially problematic for us Canadians, as we’re stuck between the American system where 05/01 means May 1st, and the British system where it means 5th of January. Some Canadian institutions follow the American system, and some (including most branches of Government) follow the British. It’s a mess.

I have some post-dated checks from a tenant. Her bank insists on just the opposite of my bank: YYYYMMDD. Can you tell at a glance what the date below is?

 

20100501? No spaces, no differentiation between fields? Thanks a lot. All confusion could be eliminated of only my tenant were allowed to write 1 May 2010.

Come the first of every month, I have to be very careful I’m depositing the right check. I haven’t made a mistake yet, but I’d bet countless people have… and suffered penalties and embarrassment as a result.

I guess I should thank the banks for one thing: at least they labeled the fields. On too many web forms, I’ve seen the date fields read simply _ _ / _ _

It’s so much easier to understand if the month is spelled out (even if abbreviated). I might have to think for a second about what month “08” is, but I can understand “Oct” instantly.

Beware two-letter abbreviations though. Recently, I was shopping for potato chips. The “best before” date was 2010 MA 17. What the heck is “MA”? If it means May, the chips were plenty fresh; if it means March, they were stale. So I didn’t buy the chips. The same problem exists if you abbreviate June or July as JU. Using three letters completely solves the problem: MAR, MAY, JUN, JUL.

Okay, rant over. To summarize:

  • When displaying a date, remember that it’s quicker and easier to understand spelled-out months. (Three-letter abbreviations are fine.)
  • When asking customers to enter a date, stick with the most conventional formatting in your jurisdiction. And — especially for the sake of us unfortunate Canadians, caught in limbo between the US and British conventions — clearly label the fields.
  • Never buy potato chips in April.

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