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December 28, 2009

Pedantry: Is it the End of the Decade Yet?

Of course it is, any way you slice it.

With centuries, the commonly used English labels happened to use counting terminology: 19th century, 20th century, etc. Some socially inept people, failing to understand the difference between English usage and math, used this coincidence as a basis for quibbling.

We don’t label decades the same way as centuries: for example, people refer often to the 1960s and never to the 197th decade. There is no coincidence of terminology to quibble over. Regardless of whether 1970 fell outside the 197th decade from the perspective of a counting quibble, 1970 has never been part of the 1960s in the context of how people use that label to communicate.

While words don’t have objective meanings, a dictionary is an excellent tool for confirming how a word will be understood in actual usage. Random House (via Dictionary.com) defines decade as: “A period of ten years beginning with a year whose last digit is zero: the decade of the 1980s.”

When using language to communicate, the most successful approach involves using words as your readers and listeners will understand them. The alternative is acting like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Now, we start counting centuries on the year labeled 1. For example, the Nineteenth Century began on January 1, 1801, rather than on January 1, 1800. That does not mean that when we refer to the 1800s, the year 1800 is automatically excluded. English doesn't work that way. Meaning is derived from usage, not a mathematical quibble.

Moreover, there's no reason to hook our manner of speech to an arbitrary mathematical quibble. In other words, why does anyone care whether the decade starts on a year ending in 1 or 0? There is no reason to do it one way or another, except that the common English usage for decades is to lump them together starting on a year ending in 0: the Seventies, the Eighties, etc. Whether we call the present decade the Aughties, the Naughties, or just 2000-2009, a decade has passed since the Nineties and so it's time for some Top Ten lists.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:05 PM

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