Everything You Need to Know about the Word “Century”
  • 2-minute read
  • 4th November 2015

Everything You Need to Know about the Word “Century”

Back in Ancient Rome, the Latin word centuria meant “group of one hundred.” It was applied to everything from agricultural land division to soldiery (hence “centurions”). But nowadays, “century” has a more specific meaning: a period of one hundred years.

Here, we will focus on this last meaning, as this term is common in many academic disciplines. As such, when discussing past events, it’s important to know how to use it correctly.

Century in Words and Numbers

Centuries can be written out either with words (“nineteenth century”) or numerals (“19th century”). In academic writing, however, it’s usually better to use the full version:

Communication changed hugely in the twentieth century. – Formal

Communication changed hugely in the 20th century. – Informal

It’s always worth checking your style guide, though, as some conventions differ. The Associated Press, for example, recommends using figures when referring to any century after the tenth.

Fin de Siècle

A common mistake when writing about the past is to conflate the numerical version of a year with the century in which it falls. In actuality, the number applies to all years up to the end of a century, not the first two digits of the year in figures. The seventeenth century, for instance, began on January 1, 1601 and ended on December 31, 1700.

As such, when referring to the year 1618, it’s important to remember that it was part of the seventeenth century, rather than the sixteenth:

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Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War left a scar on the seventeenth century. – Correct

Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War left a scar on the sixteenth century. – Incorrect

To avoid this mistake, keep in mind that the number refers to the end of the century (e.g. 1800 or 1900) and covers the preceding hundred years.

To Capitalize or Not?

It’s not uncommon for people to capitalize centuries: e.g., “Fourteenth Century” rather than “fourteenth century.” However, this is incorrect, since “century” is a measure of time, like “week” or “month,” not a proper noun.

When to Hyphenate

The final thing to remember with centuries is when to hyphenate. The rule here is the same as when using hyphens elsewhere, so it depends on whether you’re using the term adjectivally.

For example, you might describe a digital wrist watch as “twentieth-century technology.” Here, we hyphenate the century because we’re using it as a compound adjective modifying the word “technology.”

Comments (15)
Mike
27th November 2019 at 06:12
Which one (or both) is proper? The holding may seem surprising when compared with the numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that favor individual rights. Or The holding may seem surprising when compared with the numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the twentieth century and twenty-first century that favor individual rights. Basically, do I need to repeat the word "century" or can I simply pluralize it?
    Proofed
    27th November 2019 at 09:10
    Hi, Mike. Either option is fine, but "centuries" is more concise and so probably preferable.
Martin Barrett
31st March 2020 at 00:58
You don't really answer the question as to whether 20th century or 20th-century is the preferred option. Also I suggest that the 17th century finished a year earlier than you say. Ie Dec 31st 1699 and n ot Dec 31st 1700.
    Proofed
    31st March 2020 at 10:10
    Hi, Martin. We answer the "20th century or 20th-century" question at the bottom of the post: you only hyphenate when using a century adjectivally. As for the end of the seventeenth century, we are using the strict Gregorian calendar construction, where each century starts on a year ending one (e.g., 1701, 1801, 1901, 2001), which is standard in historical writing. You can read more about why centuries work this way here: https://www.timeanddate.com/counters/mil2000.html
Tama
26th May 2020 at 01:34
If "20th century" is being used twice in a sentence, once as a adjective and once as a noun, would you hyphenate just the adjective? Or leave both open for consistency?
    Proofed
    26th May 2020 at 11:16
    Hi, Tama. We'd always suggest hyphenating the adjectival use. If the inconsistency bothers you, you might want to look at rephrasing so that the sentence doesn't repeat the century in question, but it shouldn't be a problem in practice.
Karen OKeefe
21st June 2020 at 23:08
which way is correct: in late-16th century England in late 16th-century England in late-16th-century England
    Proofed
    22nd June 2020 at 10:37
    Hi, Karen. "Late 16th-century England" or "late-16th-century England" would be fine here in most cases, but depending on the context you might want to also write "sixteenth" out in full (e.g., in formal or academic writing).
Hannah
19th July 2020 at 23:59
Hello, Would this be the correct way to write: Mid-twentieth-century revival? Thank you
    Proofed
    20th July 2020 at 11:36
    Hi, Hannah. Some style guides allow for variations on this (e.g. the MLA advice on the topic), so it might be worth checking your style guide if you're using one, but otherwise "mid-twentieth-century revival" would be correct in most cases (e.g., it follows the conventions favored by the Chicago Manual of Style and the MHRA Style Manual). Hope that helps!
Hannah
21st July 2020 at 02:10
Thank you so much!
Amphioxus
29th September 2020 at 23:21
How should one punctuate, "...within 17th- and 18th-century scientific discourse." Or worse: "...within late-17th- and early-18th-century scientific discourse." These complicated forms seem to encompass most of the problems into which one might encounter.
    Proofed
    30th September 2020 at 09:55
    Hi, Amphioxus. As mentioned in the post, you typically need hyphens when using centuries adjectivally. Thus, "17th- and 18th-century scientific discourse" is fine, as is "late-17th- and early-18th-century scientific discourse" (although we'd typically recommend writing the century numbers out in full for formal writing). However, there is room for variation here as long as you choose a clear and consistent style of punctuation. In addition, if you're using a style guide, you should check it for advice on punctuating centuries (e.g., MLA style would suggest "late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century scientific discourse," while Chicago style would recommend "late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century scientific discourse," where only the number and "century" are hyphenated).
Dathan Byrd
9th June 2021 at 21:11
Hello, how would one write "The 21st Centuries Levy to this fight'? Would I hyphenate 21st-centuries, of 21st-Centuries? Thanks.
    Proofed
    10th June 2021 at 17:29
    Hi, Dathan. As the blog post explains, you only need to hyphenate centuries when they are used adjectivally: e.g., in "twentieth-century technology," the century is modifying the word "technology," so we hyphenate it. But in "it was invented in the twentieth century," the term "twentieth century" refers to the century itself, so we don't need to hyphenate. In your example, then, it will depend on whether you're using the term adjectivally. If the century is meant to modify the word "levy," it would be a "21st-century levy." But if you're just referring to the current century, you won't need a hyphen. It's not immediately obvious what you are trying to say, though: e.g., do you mean "levy" as in the old-fashioned term for enlisting someone to an army? Or in the modern sense of fining someone or charging a fee, with the "fight" being metaphorical? Is the plural form "centuries" deliberate? Or should it be the possessive "century's"? Also, neither form would require you to capitalize the word "century/centuries." It may be that you'll benefit from submitting a document for proofreading, so feel free to upload something if you need a bit more help: https://proofed.com/free-proofreading-and-editing-sample/

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