Arguably the most common way to express a date is to include the day of the month, the month, and the year. And there are many ways to order that information. For example, day, month, year, like 20/11/2020. Or perhaps a more common example is month, day, year, like 12/30/2024. Any programmer will tell you that there are endless variations and possibilities. With the scripting language PHP for example, there are many ways to format a date. So it begs the question, is there an optimal way to write dates? Why yes in fact, there is..
YEAR/MONTH/DAY format maintains perfect calendrical order and scales infinitely.
Numerical Order is the Key
For one-off dates, like when filling out a form or something, you can use whatever date format makes sense. But when working with multiple dates, like with archived files, it’s always best to write numerical dates in descending order. Doing so preserves calendrical order and is infinitely scalable. To understand this, consider some examples.
Putting the day first
When working with only one month’s worth of days at a time, it’s fine to put the day first, because all of the days will be in numerical order. For example, if you have a folder that contains one file for each day in the month of February, 2030:
01/02/2030 02/02/2030 03/02/2030 . . . 26/02/2030 27/02/2030 28/02/2030
And all is well. But it doesn’t scale. That is, if you add files for each day in March, the results get jumbled:
01/02/2030 01/03/2030 02/02/2030 02/03/2030 03/02/2030 03/03/2030 . . . 26/02/2030 26/03/2030 27/02/2030 27/03/2030 28/02/2030 28/03/2030
So the files/dates are alternating from February to March, which is confusing at best. And it gets increasingly complex as more days are added. So in addition to not scaling, day-first formats fail at preserving calendrical order.
Putting the month first
Just as with putting the day first, putting the month first in dates leads to chaos. Again let’s use the example of archived files in a folder. Including only one year’s worth of months is gonna be fine:
01/15/2040 02/15/2040 03/15/2040 . . . 10/15/2040 11/15/2040 12/15/2040
But as before this is not scalable. For example, adding more months with the same day begins to confuse:
01/15/2040 01/15/2041 02/15/2040 02/15/2041 03/15/2040 03/15/2041 . . . 10/15/2040 10/15/2041 11/15/2040 11/15/2041 12/15/2040 12/15/2041
In order to make sense of this, you have to look at the end of each line to get the year information. So again calendrical order is lost. I mean, imagine if we added more than one day per month per year:
01/15/2040 01/16/2040 01/15/2041 01/16/2041 02/15/2040 02/16/2040 02/15/2041 02/16/2041 03/15/2040 03/16/2040 03/15/2041 03/16/2041 . . .
Yeah good luck with that.
Year first, then day, then month
One more example of what doesn’t work. Putting the year first followed by the day then month. Consider the following, where we have a folder containing one file for each month of the year:
2020/20/01 2020/20/02 2020/20/03 . . . 2020/20/10 2020/20/11 2020/20/12
As with previous examples, this ordering breaks down if either more days or added or more months are added.
2020/20/01 2020/21/01 2020/20/02 2020/21/02 2020/20/03 2020/21/03 . . . 2020/20/10 2020/21/10 2020/20/11 2020/21/11 2020/20/12 2020/21/12
Notice how the dates alternate between 20 and 21? It’s just bonkers. So this format also is not optimal because it is not scalable and does not preserve calendrical order.
Using spelled-out names for months and days
By now you should see where this is going. But for the sake of thoroughness, let’s look at one more example, where actual names are used in dates. As before, say we have a folder that contains a file for each day of the week. Ideally it would look something like this:
Sunday-Aug-04-2019 Monday-Aug-05-2019 Tuesday-Aug-06-2019 Wednesday-Aug-07-2019 Thursday-Aug-08-2019 Friday-Aug-09-2019 Saturday-Aug-10-2019
That may look nice and even easier to read, etc. But that is not how the files actually will be ordered on the machine. Instead it would look like this:
Friday-Aug-09-2019 Monday-Aug-05-2019 Saturday-Aug-10-2019 Sunday-Aug-04-2019 Thursday-Aug-08-2019 Tuesday-Aug-06-2019 Wednesday-Aug-07-2019
Because computers order things alphanumerically, the files are out of order pretty much completely. So why bother naming them with dates in the first place. Imagine a hundred files named like this. Likewise using the spelled-out name of the month, like “September” or “October”; it just doesn’t work.
Year, month, day.
This is the best format. To understand why, consider the following example:
2020/01/20 2020/02/20 2020/03/20 . . . 2020/10/20 2020/11/20 2020/12/20
Now let’s add in months from another year:
2020/01/20 2020/02/20 2020/03/20 . . . 2020/10/20 2020/11/20 2020/12/20 2021/01/20 2021/02/20 2021/03/20 . . . 2021/10/20 2021/11/20 2021/12/20
Still in order. What if we add more days to each month:
2020/01/20 2020/01/21 2020/02/20 2020/02/21 2020/03/20 2020/03/21 . . . 2020/10/20 2020/10/21 2020/11/20 2020/11/21 2020/12/20 2020/12/21 2021/01/20 2021/01/21 2021/02/20 2021/02/21 2021/03/20 2021/02/21 . . . 2021/10/20 2021/10/21 2021/11/20 2021/10/21 2021/12/20 2021/10/21
Everything remains perfectly ordered. We could add as many dates as needed and the order always will remain correct. So unlike other format options, “year-month-day” is both infinitely scalable and calendrical in order.
In general, order date items from largest to smallest to keep things scalable and preserve calendrical order. If the largest timeframe is a year, then begin the date with the year. If it is the month, then begin with the month. If centuries, begin with centuries. And so forth. Then proceed in descending order until reaching the smallest date item, whether it be the day, minute, second, nanosecond, or what have you.
It’s that simple. And as long as the format is consistent, it works regardless of punctuation: dashes, slashes, spaces, or even no punctuation at all; it always works because it is numerically consistent.
As mentioned, there are endless ways to write a date. This article aims at answering the question, “which is best” for the general case. Like on a computer naming files. Or data in a spreadsheet. Or when writing code. Or virtually anything else you can think of.
Of course, there always are exceptions to the rule. There may be certain disciplines or fields where highly specific date formatting is required for specific algorithmic purposes, scientific analyses, or whatever. In general however, for everyday common use, the best date format begins with the largest timespan and then proceed to the smallest. And you can use whatever punctuation you want, for example:
Anything else doesn’t make sense.