How to Write the Decade Correctly

Summary

Use numerals for decades in formal texts (“the 1990s”). In informal and creative writing, you may use either words or figures (“the nineties” or “the 1990s”). Names of decades may be abbreviated in informal writing (“the ’90s”).

Examples
  • Anita’s thesis discusses the chat-room culture of the 1990s.
  • Overalls first became popular in the nineties.
  • Here are the top rock songs of the ’90s.

An apostrophe before the s is unnecessary, though not incorrect (“1990s” or “1990’s”).

What years make a decade?

A decade is a 10-year period. A specific decade (e.g., the 1990s) is generally considered to begin with a year ending in zero. Decades may be written in various styles: in words or numerals, with an apostrophe or without, and with or without the century specified.

Examples
  • Online businesses first became popular in the late nineties.
  • Pagers were ubiquitous in the 1990s.
  • The 1990’s were a great time to be young.
  • Alternative rock became mainstream in the ’90s.

In this article, we discuss how decades are shown in formal and other writing, and how to write decades correctly in various styles.

Words vs. numerals

Write decades in numerals instead of words in formal writing (such as a thesis or a report). Specify both century and decade. No apostrophe is necessary before the s that appears after the numerals.

Examples
  • We conducted a survey of those vaccinated in the 1980s.
    pronounced “nineteen eighties”
  • The boomers were the generation that entered adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The 1890s were a decade of transition and change.
  • There are many challenges to overcome in the 2020s.

In casual communication, where context makes the century clear, the numbers denoting the century may be omitted.

Example
  • She loves the music of the ’80s and ’90s.
Tip

Decades may be considered either singular or plural.

Examples
  • Correct: The 1970s was a time of great social change.
  • Correct: The 1970s were the best years of her life.

In creative and other writing, decades are often written in words (although they may also be shown using numerals). Use the article the before the decade. The century is generally omitted.

Examples
  • She was a child of the eighties.
  • In the early sixties, my mother worked as a journalist.
  • The fifties was a time of prosperity and excess.
  • Around the world, people welcomed the twenties at midnight, mercifully unaware of what was to come.

Capitalization

Don’t capitalize the names of decades.

Examples
  • Poor: China saw healthy economic growth in the Nineties.
    Better: China saw healthy economic growth in the nineties.
  • Poor: The Twenties were marked by multiple financial crises around the world.
    Better: The twenties were marked by multiple financial crises around the world.

Apostrophe before s

An apostrophe before the s in a decade is generally omitted in formal writing.

Examples
  • In our study, we investigate how digital communication of the 2000s and 2010s has affected international politics.
  • Those born in the 1980s dreamed constantly of space travel.
  • The 1930s was a period of great political turmoil.
Note

Most style guides, like the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, recommend omitting the apostrophe in names of decades and other plural words. This is a matter of style rather than grammar. If you are editing a piece of creative writing, respect the preference of the writer.

In informal writing, an apostrophe may or may not be used, depending on preference. Note that using one is unnecessary, though not incorrect.

Examples
  • The band began to experiment with other instruments in the late 1980’s.
  • The 2010’s will be remembered as the decade of social media, avocado toast, bubble tea, and unicorn cakes.
  • The 1850s marked the start of globalization.
Caution

Don’t use an apostrophe in the name of a decade written in words.

Example
  • Incorrect: Here are some fashion tips from the eightie’s.
    Incorrect: Here are some fashion tips from the eighties’.
    Correct: Here are some fashion tips from the eighties.

The decade abbreviated

In informal writing, names of decades may be abbreviated by using an apostrophe.

Examples
  • In today’s episode, we discuss forgotten cars from the ’60s and ’70s.
    instead of “the 1960s and 1970s”
  • The band became briefly popular in the ’90s.
  • James’s family moved to Canada in the late ’80s.
Caution

Use an apostrophe, not an opening quotation mark to mark the omission of the century from the name of the decade.

Example
  • Incorrect: Sitcoms came into their own in the ‘90s.
    Correct:Sitcoms came into their own in the ’90s.

The before decade

Use the definite article the before the name of a decade, whether written in numerals or words.

Examples
  • She is a child of the nineties.
  • This playlist has all my favorite songs from the ’80s.
  • Bell-bottoms were a popular style of trousers in the 1970s.

The article the may not be necessary when the decade is used as an adjective instead of a noun.

Examples
  • She’s a nineties kid at heart.
  • Maya loves listening to ’80s rock.
  • This style is so 1970s.

How to pronounce

To say the name of a decade written in numerals—for example, the 2010s—divide it into two parts: say the first two and then the second two digits as if they were individual numbers.

Examples
  • 1980s = nineteen eighties
  • 1990s = nineteen nineties
  • 2010s = twenty tens, not two thousand tens
  • 2020s = twenty twenties

An exception is the first decade of the twenty-first century. The 2000s is pronounced “two thousands,” not “twenty hundreds.”

The first decade: Aughties, Noughties, or 2000s?

In informal American usage, the first decade of the twenty-first century (the years 2000–2009) is often called the aughties or the aughts. The British generally refer to this decade as the noughties.

Examples
  • American: When the aughties weren’t horrifying, they were tough.
    — “Arthur magazine, a counterculture favorite, returns to print,” Washington Post (December 25, 2012)
  • British: Justin Timberlake has formally apologised for his fashion sense during his time with NSYNC in the noughties.
    — “All the times Justin Timberlake’s outfits seemed right, but were so wrong,” BBC News (February 9, 2017)
Tip

The terms noughties and aughties come from the words nought and aught, which mean zero.

In formal prose, the first decade of a century should not be written the same way as other decades. For example, while it is clear which time period the term “1920s” refers to, the “1900s” could mean either the decade from 1900 to 1909 or the entire twentieth century. Consider making it clear to your readers that you mean the decade and not the century.

Example
  • Confusing: These photographs show that exercise was taken seriously even in the 1900s.
    The years 1900–1909 or 1900–1999?
    Clearer: These photographs show that exercise was taken seriously even in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Of course, if context makes it clear that you’re referring to the decade and not the century, there is no need to clarify.

Example
  • The scientific spirit of the 1890s saw itself carried into the 1900s and 1910s.

Also keep in mind that until the twenty-first century has passed and become part of history, people are unlikely to find the term “2000s” confusing.

The second decade: Tens, teens, or 2010s?

The second decade of a century is generally written in numerals rather than words: 1910s, 2010s, etc. Some people do informally call the second decade the tens or the teens. Avoid such usage in formal texts.

Examples
  • Children’s fashions changed significantly in the 1910s.
  • The 2010s saw populism rise across the globe.

Quick Quiz

Which is correct?
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Which is preferred in formal writing?
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Which is preferred in formal writing?
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Which is better style?
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Which refers more clearly to a decade than to a century?
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All done!

Did You Know?

Splitting an infinitive can be important to the meaning of a sentence.
Know more:Split Infinitives: Is It Wrong to Split an Infinitive?