The Cart Before The Horse

By The Metric Maven

Many times I’ve heard the phrase “you put the cart before the horse.” It generally metaphorically implies that you have attempted to implement something in an order that will not work. Generally, it is easiest to have a horse pull a cart. It is said that the notion that the horse comes first, and then the cart, is psychologically responsible for the assumption that a car engine should be in the front of a car. Even when no horse is present, one will automatically make an assumption about the position of the device that provides locomotion, and how many horses it has.

When we see a Hindu number, we assume the leading digit on the left is the largest multiple value of ten, and the trailing value on the right is the smallest.  If I write 123, clearly the 1 stands for 100, 2 is for 20 and so on. This is the basis for the interpretation of Hindu numbers around the planet. If I claimed that in my view 123 should be written 213 with the twenty, and then the 100 and then 3, most people would be aghast. It took over 1000 years for the world to settle on rightward descending digits in terms of 10, changing this logical order would be considered just plain bonkers. It would be like a stairway with a bulge in its middle.

A while back I was looking at how my Tivo was listing programs and noticed a considerable change. Some programs in the guide are  listed by date like this:

I was appalled. What on Earth? Someone decided to adopt the dashes of the international date standard, but reject the order of the date? Perhaps one could argue that the order for a date could be jumbled if the entire planet used the same sequence, but they do not. In the case of say 03-04-2017, most Americans would see this as March 4th of 2017, but a person in the UK would look at it and see April 3, 2017. This April date would also be true for Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia and others, but with dots 03.04.2017.

Brazil likes forward slashes 03/04/2017, again going with the day first, month second and year third. The Germans used this format, but since 1996-05-01, they have officially adopted ISO 8601.

Greenland uses both forward slashes and dots 03/04/2017 and 03.04.2017 for April 3rd 2017.

Canada, “our metric neighbor to the North,”  use three different versions to express a date.

Wikipedia has a nice list of date formats by country, and it really appears the US is yet again in the minority when it comes to how we write our dates. Some countries include leading zeros, and some do not. A great majority do not put the date in descending order, and have the current year last. This is rather fortunate in a way. If one sees a date with the year first, then it is almost a dead certainty that the date is ISO 8601 format. The one numerical standard that exists throughout the world, is that for Hindu numerals, where the largest value comes first, the next largest second, and so if one sees 2017-03-04 this value will only be rationally interpreted in terms of ISO 8601. While the world, with the exception of the US and two others, have all adopted the metric system, International dating has not been universally adopted. It seems long overdue that the world should finally put the horse before the cart when it comes to dates.

Related Essay:

International Dating