Q&A: BC/AD vs BCE/CE

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re going on a date…

Q: Hi AWC, I need some dating advice.

A: We don’t really go in for that sort of thing. Um… Split the bill maybe?

Q: No, I’m talking about how to write dates. For example, I always wrote “Julius Caesar was killed in 44BC” but now I’m seeing “44BCE” everywhere…

A: Ah yes, poor guy. Killed for creating such a good salad.

Q: Really? 

A: Actually, no. The salad was invented a few thousand years later – by a chef named Caesar Cardini in his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant in 1924. He ran out of ingredients and was forced to improvise.

Q: Wow, okay, but we’re getting off topic.

A: So we are.

Q: I grew up learning that the years before Jesus was born were written “BC” for “Before Christ” while those after were “AD” for “Anno Domini”.

A: Which basically translates to “in the year of the Lord”…

Q: Exactly! So why am I now seeing BCE and CE in lots of places? Is this some kind of new political correctness?

A: Actually, the concept of “CE” meaning the “Common Era” has been around in English since the 1700s. That said, it didn’t really gain traction until the 1990s.

Q: So it stands for “Common Era”?

A: Yes, typically. Some also go with “Christian Era” but the official terms are “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “The Common Era” (CE).

Q: When exactly is this ‘era’?

A: That’s the easy part – the years match exactly the same. So 44BC becomes 44BCE and AD1 becomes 1CE. Everything still works off the approximation of the birth of Jesus – without actually SAYING it.

Q: So Jesus was born in, what, the “Year Zero”?

A: They call it the “Year No Sugar” now…

Q: Really?

A: No of course not! It actually jumps from 1BC straight to AD1 (or 1BCE to 1CE). Not that it matters, because historians think Jesus was actually born more likely around 4BC/BCE so the original calendar makers got their sums a little wrong.

Q: Christ, this is confusing.

A: You mean Before Christ.

Q: Sorry, it’s a common error.

A: Boom tish.

Q: I still don’t get why they would change it if the system wasn’t broken!

A: Historians were keen to have a dating system that didn’t reference Christianity so heavily – after all, there are other religions in the world.

Q: But the current Gregorian Calendar we use IS historically a Christian calendar, isn’t it?

A: Haha, yeah, it sure is. And while it’s true that other religions have their own calendars, the Gregorian is still the widest used on the planet and the BCE/CE system is an attempt to make it more neutral.

Q: I don’t remember any big announcement about changing…

A: Besides some heated academic debates, there hasn’t been – because writers are free to continue to use BC/AD. Many historians however have, since the 1990s, adopted the BCE/CE method – along with many style guides including the Chicago Style Guide and the AP Style Guide. The latter calls for dots too – B.C.E. and C.E. – but most leave them out.

Q: Is it going to eventually take over?

A: Possibly. There was a big fuss kicked up when it replaced BC/AD in the British school curriculum back in 2002. Australia has also tried to introduce it, less successfully.

Q: But if many history books and websites contain BCE/CE now, it’s kind of already here, yes?

A: Yeah, that’s true. But for now, it’s up to you what you use and to simply be consistent with the method you go with.

Q: Any other tips?

A: Unless a style guide prescribes it, you can leave off the dots. However the biggest difference you may have noticed is that AD is written before a year, while CE comes after.

Q: Example?

A: The French Revolution was in AD1789 or 1789CE.

Q: Wait, can’t I just write that it was in 1789 with no letters at all?

A: Actually yes – when referring to years in the past few centuries, unless you’re a historian, it’s fine to not use letters at all. And beyond that, simply go with what you prefer.

Q: Finally, I bought a lamp from IKEA and it had “CE” written underneath it. Is this related to the date it was made? 

A: Haha, oh no that stands for “Conformité Européenne” – a European product standard placed on goods manufactured there. Completely unrelated.

Q: Thanks for that. Hey, are you keen on sharing a Caesar salad? We can split the bill…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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