• 3-minute read
  • 25th September 2015

Everything You Need to Know About the Word ‘Century’

The word ‘century’ comes from the Latin centuria, meaning ‘group of one hundred’. It’s also a common word in academic writing.

It is probably seen most often by history students. But any subject that requires delving into the past will encounter this term on a regular basis.

And though this word might seem simple, there are a number of things to consider if you want your written work to be top class. We’ve identified a few of these below, so if you need a little help writing about the past, you’ve come to the right place!

Words or Numbers?

The most common question we’re asked is whether to write centuries as words (‘seventeenth century’) or with numerals (‘11th century’). The general advice in academic writing is to spell out numbers under twelve (so ‘five apples’ rather than ‘5 apples’). But the word ‘century’ is an exception to this and centuries should always be written as words:

Little is known about the fifth century at present.Correct

Little is known about the 5th century at present.Incorrect

Cut-Off Periods

Make sure you know which period of time you’re referring to. The century number denotes the number of complete centuries up to that point, so usually doesn’t match the numerical expression of the year. The nineteenth century, for example, began in 1801 and ended in 1900.

A common mistake is to conflate the numerical year with the century:

By 1845, deep into the nineteenth century, the situation had changed. – Correct

By 1845, deep into the eighteenth century, the situation had changed. – Incorrect

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It is easy to avoid this kind of error though: just remember that the number refers to the previous hundred years.

To Hyphenate or Not?

Our proofreaders are often asked if centuries should be hyphenated: e.g. whether to write ‘nineteenth century’ or ‘nineteenth-century’. The answer here depends on the situation.

When ‘century’ is used adjectivally, such as when referring to an artefact, event, quality or concept from a certain time, it should be hyphenated:

Napoleon was a master of nineteenth-century military tactics.

Here, for example, we are modifying ‘military tactics’, so we need to use a hyphenated compound adjective. When referring to the century in itself, however, no hyphen is required:

Napoleon was a master of military tactics in the nineteenth century.

This same rule applies to other compound adjectives.


It’s also worth remembering that the word ‘century’ doesn’t usually require capitalising. Quite a lot of people make this mistake, writing (for instance) ‘nineteenth century’ as ‘nineteenth Century’. But this term is not a proper noun. Rather, it is a measure of time, like ‘week’ or ‘month’, and since you wouldn’t capitalise these, you don’t need to capitalise century either!

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