In history and other academic subjects that require referring to the past, it’s important to be clear about dates. However, since the most widely-used, internationally recognised calendar—the Gregorian calendar—only stretches back a couple of millennia, we need a way of indicating when a date refers to a time before this period.
This is why we have the terms ‘BC/AD’ and ‘BCE/CE’. But what exactly do these initials stand for? How do they work? And which ones should you use in a university essay?
BC/AD (Before Christ/Anno Domini)
The older of these sets of terms is ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. They were first developed around fifteen centuries ago by a monk called Dionysus Exiguus, and popularised a couple of hundred years later by another monk known as the Venerable Bede.
As Christian monks, both were interested in calculating the date of Easter rather than history as an academic subject. To do this, they needed to know when Jesus was born, so ‘BC’ means ‘before Christ’ and ‘AD’ means ‘anno Domini’ (i.e. Latin for ‘in the year of the Lord’).
Accordingly, ‘AD’ became the beginning point for the Christian Julian and Gregorian calendars, the latter of which we still use today. ‘BC’, meanwhile, refers to any time before this period.
Stylistically, ‘AD’ should be written before a year (e.g. ‘this blog post was published in AD 2016’). However, ‘BC’ is usually written after the year in question and dates count back from the first year AD, so 300 years before AD 1 would be written as ‘300 BC’.
BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era)
‘BCE’ (‘before common era’ or ‘before current era’) and ‘CE’ (‘common era’ or ‘current era’) are secular versions of ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. They refer to the same periods in history, but without the religious connotations.
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There’s a stylistic difference with these terms, though, as both are given after the date. We’d thus say that this blog was posted in ‘2016 CE’, and 300 years before CE 1 would be ‘300 BCE’.
Full Stops in Initialisms
You may see these terms written with full stops between the letters in some sources (i.e. ‘B.C.’, ‘A.D.’, ‘B.C.E.’ and ‘C.E.’). This is because American English often punctuates initialisms.
In Australian English, however, this isn’t typically the case, so there’s no need to add full stops between the letters unless your university style guide specifies otherwise.
BC/AD or BCE/CE?
The best advice we can give here is to check your style guide, since both systems are commonly used in Australian schools and universities. Some people prefer BCE/CE since it is more inclusive to non-Christians, but others prefer the traditional BC/AD distinction.
Whichever notation you pick, however, make sure to use it consistently in your essay!