20th June 2018
Writing the Past: BC–AD or BCE–CE?
History is big. Very big. This is why we have the terms “BC” and “AD,” as well as “BCE” and “CE,” which help us keep track of what happened when. But how exactly do these terms work? And which of BC–AD or BCE–CE should you use in your written work? Let’s find out!
BC and AD
BC stands for “before Christ.” AD is short for the Latin term “anno Domini,” which means “in the year of the Lord.” They came into use thanks to two monks: Dionysius Exiguus (who coined the term “anno Domini”) and the Venerable Bede (who popularized it).
They were originally invented to calculate the correct date of Easter, with AD 1 being the first year after Jesus was born. Today, historians use these terms to denote dates before (BC) and after (AD) the start of the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar we still use today!
The correct positioning for each of these terms is different. BC goes after the date:
Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC.
But AD goes before the date:
The Woodland period continued until around AD 1,000.
Keep in mind that BC involves counting backwards from 1 (so 44 BC is 44 years before 1 BC), while AD involves counting forwards (so AD 1,000 is 1,000 years after AD 1).
BCE and CE
BCE stands for “before common era.” CE stands for “common era.” What is the common era? It’s exactly the same as the time period covered by AD! It therefore includes everything since the start of the Gregorian calendar, whereas BCE covers everything before then.
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These terms, then, work in exactly the same way as BC and AD. They were simply designed as a secular alternative. In practice, the only difference is that both go after the date:
Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BCE.
The Woodland period continued until around 1,000 CE.
This does at least make it easier to remember the positioning for each term!
Which Is Correct?
Both! Sorry, not a very helpful answer, but it is true. As explained above, they work in essentially the same way, so the choice between them is largely a matter of preference.
You may want to check your style guide if you have one available, since some colleges and publishers prefer one system over the other. And BCE–CE is sometimes considered more modern.
If we had to choose, we’d say that BCE–CE is better because the positioning is simpler. But ultimately, it is up to you! The important thing is to pick one system and use it consistently throughout your document. Having your work proofread will make sure this is the case.
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