When even L1s get a certain aspect of English mixed up, you can bet it’s tricky for English language learners to master. This is the case with writing and saying years. Why do we have more than one word to represent an era? Why don’t they have the same position in a sentence? How do we punctuate and capitalize these abbreviations? Let’s clear things up for our students (and possibly for ourselves).
- BC stands for “Before Christ” and represents the years before Christ was born
- AD stands for “Anno Domini,” which is Latin for “the year of our Lord,” and represents the years after Christ was born
- BCE stands for “Before Common Era,” “Before Christian Era,” or “Before Current Era” and represents the time before the last 2015 years (at the time this was written)
- CE stands for “Common Era,” “Christian Era,” or “Current Era” and represents years 1–2015 (at the time this was written)
BC and BCE represent the same time frame, but with BCE, the religious aspect is removed. The same goes for AD and CE (the religious aspect is removed with CE).
- 300 BC
- AD 2015
- 300 BCE
- 2015 CE
BC, BCE, and CE come after the year. Write or say 300 BC or 300 before Christ, 300 BCE or 300 before common era, and 2015 CE or 2015 common era. However, AD comes before the year, so write or say AD 2015 or anno Domini 2015. This is because anno Domini is Latin for the year of our Lord, and we always say the year of our Lord before the year (so the year of our Lord 2015).
Is 2015 AD ever correct? Many people (myself included) were taught that AD stood for after death (after the death of Christ). Some people do write or say AD after the year, but as this is technically incorrect, it is far better to write or say AD 2015.
3. Punctuation & Capitalization
Is it BC or B.C.? BCE or B.C.E.? Well, it depends on which style guide or dictionary you follow. Merriam‑Webster Dictionary (American English) lists these entries with capital letters and no periods (e.g., BC), but notes that they are often punctuated and/or written in small capitals (e.g., B.C.). Oxford Dictionary (British English) and Oxford Canadian Dictionary (Canadian English) also list these entries with capital letters and no periods (e.g., BC) and notes they are often written in small capitals, but they don’t list periods as common usage.
A popular American style guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, has these entries in capital letters with no periods (e.g., BC). This is consistent with many other types of abbreviations that they list (e.g., US, UK, WA, etc.). In my role as an editor, I’ve noticed that there is definitely a movement away from unnecessary punctuation.