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

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

11 thoughts on “The Cart Before The Horse

  1. As an American living with a German for nearly 20 years, the difference sometimes can cause mishaps in things like booking flights, not a cheap mistake. I agree that standardization would simplify a lot of life and prevent some problems, but I must say that I find the convention of descending size (year -> month -> date -> time) to be more logical to me. But my German says I often have my own logic.

    • It’s always a little surreal, but absolutely charming, to hear from a fellow American saying something on the order of “Hmmm, that really makes more sense than the way we do things.”

      I recall an Agatha Christie mystery in which the solution to the murder followed from the realization than an American guest in a European hotel had signed and dated the register using the American date convention: month, day, year; rather than what most people of the last century probably took to be the European convention: day, month, year. I remember David Suchet as Hercule Poirot saying “Americans have much to answer for.”

      No argument there, Monsieur Poirot, but in the specific case of writing dates, the underlying question is a bit more convoluted. Which is preferable: to be inconsistently logical (American convention), or consistently illogical (European convention)? The answer interests me about as much as the question of whether a Zebra is a white animal with black stripes, or a black animal with white stripes.

      I wince to report that my first contact with a civilized date format came a geologic age ago, when I was learning to program. I was using an ASR-33 teletype. (With the spiffy optional paper tape reader/ punch!) The connection was via a 110-baud acoustic modem. (You really had to jam the phone into the modem pretty firmly.) I still remember parts of a successful login message, which always carried the thrill of victory: UNIVAC 1106 [incomprehensible letters and numbers] 1978.08.13 15:23:18 [more incomprehensible gibberish….]

      I remember thinking, “The year first? That’s just weird!” But it isn’t, of course, it’s the only logical thing. Cheers!

      • As Germans say, “It’s serious but not impossible.”
        As Austrians say, “It’s impossible, but not serious.”

  2. Interesting post Maven. I spent a lot of years in the military and today’s date in military terminology would be: 10JUL17. When I used a date like this in civilian employment I created confusion amongst my co-workers and I had to resort to using what is normally used in the U.S. The supply system in the military uses the Julian Date. A variation of the calendar Julius Caesar is reputed to have developed centuries ago. In Julian Date today would be: 191. In a leap year it would be 192. One would add all of the days of the year preceding, and including today, to arrive at the Julian Date. The military also has used a 24 hour clock for many years, which the majority of people seem to reject its ease and simplicity. I often wonder if the entire world would agree to using the exact same measurement system, and how things would work better by doing so, if it would help the countries to cooperate more on all other differences they claim to have.

    • Caesar invented the modern month lengths and leap year every fourth year, starting 45 BC (Pope Gregory added exception rules for century years in 1582). As the Romans counted down to Nones, Ides, and then the Kalends of the next month, it is a bit hard to recognize as a modern calendar, but it is. They doubled down on Feb 24, 6 days before the Kalends of March (they count inclusively, including both the 24th and March 1), so a leap year is also called a bisextile year. The calendar without special century year rules is known as the Julian calendar, with them, the Gregorian calendar, differing currently by 13 days.

      The military misuses the term Julian Date which is a continuous count of days from 4713 BC used by astronomers (today, at noon UTC will be 2 457 946). It is properly called ordinal day, and an alternate form allowed in ISO 8601 is 2017-192 (as well as 2017-W28-2). Only the main form 2017-07-11 is well known, the others have fairly specialized uses.

  3. I remember when I was still a young lad, we had a German exchange student staying with us. So we were out looking for trouble – he went in to buy us a bottle of wine – as he was 18 – but they turned him down because his passport had the month /day reversed so he appeared 17.

    I hate our date standard and use yyyy-mm-dd_hh-mm-ss when ever possible, Sometimes when filling out forms – I don’t use the number for the month (July instead) – as it can confuse our more cosmopolitan population.

    • ISO 8601 specifies the colon as the separator in the time portion hh:mm:ss and “T” as the separator between days and hours if date and time are a single field. A space separates it into a date field and a time field.

      • Well I started my standard before they came out with theirs.. I started sometime in the early 80’s – then later, when they changed to longer file names, a colon was not allowed as part of a file name depending on the system – FAT8 FAT16 FAT32 VFAT exFAT NTFS HFS – all of the Amiga FS Probably more…

        So I could use it ( I only run Linux these days) but if I send a picture to a friend where I have it named by the date – it causes problems.

  4. Even in the IT industry, where you would expect this to be standard, the ISO 8601 system isn’t always used. I’m temping at a data centre run by a major American IT company. (No, not the one that produced the HAL 9000 in 2001.)

    We use dd/mm/yy(yy) in locally (Australian) produced documents, and in software which can be set to use local conventions (eg Microsoft Office,) but the main incident-tracking application uses the US date format, with no exceptions for the rest of the world.

    Also, we produce a lot of reports which are filed as reportname-dd-mm-yy.doc in a series of folders: Reports 2017 > Reports July > reportname04-07-2017.doc | reportname05/07/2017.doc | reportname06/07/2017.doc…etc

    I asked my supervisior about using the ISO 8601 system and he seemed to not know about it. Inertia is probably the biggest factor stopping it from being adopted.

    • My German knows a lot of standards, meaning policies and things like the GUM and VIM, etc. He said that ISO books are terribly expensive to purchase, so that could be another reason beyond inertia. My German is philosophically against ISO generally because they charge so much for someone to know what the standard is. I agree that if it’s a standard, the specs should be open, if you want people to use them.

      • That is also true of ANSI standards and those issued by many professional societies.

        However, some are summarized well in independent articles. Both Markus Kuhn and Wikipedia have very good summaries of ISO 8601, although you are not getting the exact official text.

        You raise a very valid point for a lot of other standards. As an example related to metrication, ANSI will charge you big bucks for ANSI SI 10 when you can get essentially the same information as free downloads from BIPM and NIST.

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