When Running an A.D., Placement Is Everything

By Rob Kyff

January 27, 2021 3 min read

Q: I've always been taught that the abbreviation B.C. should be placed after the number of a year, and A.D. before the year. However, I've noticed that A.D. is now often being placed after the year. Is this now acceptable? — Robert Warner, via email

A: I blame this unfortunate trend on the popularity of the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which memorably begins with the date 932 A.D. emblazoned on the screen. But, to borrow a line from the film, "Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who" — or fight over who killed the proper placement of A.D.

A.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase "Anno Domini" ("in the year of the Lord"), so it should logically be located BEFORE the year. "Emperor Nero fiddled in the year of the Lord 64" makes sense. "Emperor Nero fiddled in 64 in the year of the Lord" doesn't.

(Actually, neither sentence makes sense, because the fiddle as we know it wasn't invented until A.D. 1000; the term "fiddled" is really a metaphor for Nero's indifference.)

By contrast, B.C. is an abbreviation for "before Christ," so B.C. is correctly placed after the year, e.g., 44 B.C.

Writers are, indeed, misplacing A.D. more often these days. Even respectable publications occasionally slip. For instance, a New York Times article from 2019 states that "Pompeii and its surroundings were buried under ash and rock following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D."; a Washington Post article from 2017 says that "In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the focal point of the divine presence for Jews." (The A.D. 70s were apparently a rough decade for the Mediterranean region.)

In other breaking news on the ancient history front, some scholars condemn the use of B.C. and A.D. because these terms compel non-Christians to base their time designations on the birth of Christ. These critics suggest that B.C. and A.D. be replaced by the nonsectarian terms B.C.E. (before the common era) or C.E. (common era). Both these terms, by the way, are placed AFTER the year, e.g., 44 B.C.E., 70 C.E.

But these newer terms are still based on the life of Christ, so they're largely cosmetic. And they clearly haven't caught on in nonacademic publications. A Google Books Ngram Viewer search shows a brief spike in the use of B.C.E. and C.E. during the 1990s, with a gradual decline in frequency since then.

To borrow another zany phrase from "Monty Python," trying to replace B.C./A.D. with B.C.E./C.E. might be as impossible as "trying to cut down a tree with a herring."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: GregMontani at Pixabay

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