Monday, April 30, 2012

A rant on time zone code usage

Or, an idea to simplify time zone abbreviations in daily usage

Time zones for North America

Say you’re checking your Twitter account while hanging out at a coffee shop on a hot summer day, and you notice the following update from your favorite musician:

@rockinmusician: Can’t make it to the San Francisco show this weekend? Watch it live online this Saturday at 7 PM PST!

Did you catch that? Does anything about the time look funny to you? Is everything dandy with that PST? Since, you know, standard time is in the summer and daylight saving time is in the winter, right? Or maybe the S stands for summer? Not quite.

I see this error way too often on social media, websites, flyers, etc. Mostly, I’ve held my tongue, but it continually annoys me, so I’m venting here.

Since rockinmusician’s concert is in the summer (Pacific Daylight Time in San Francisco), the actual time should be written 7 PM PDT. Or should it?

Should we even continue to use traditional U.S. time zone codes/abbreviations (i.e. EST/EDT, CST/CDT, MST/MDT, PST/PDT, etc.) when specifying times in day-to-day communication?

Wrong information

Why do we even bother adding the S or D in our time zone codes if we’re going to be wrong about it? I think saying the wrong thing is worse than being too general. And because it’s been communicated incorrectly so often (at least in social media), it has become unreliable. Like the boy who cried “wolf”.

It may even cause clients/fans/etc. to lose a bit of respect when they see the obvious mistake.

Useless information

Furthermore, the vast majority of the time, it adds no meaningful information to specify whether an event happens during standard or daylight saving time, even when it is communicated correctly. In many cases, standard time or daylight saving time are going to be the same between the two parties communicating, even if they are in different time zones. And when it’s not, they will usually be aware of that.

So the middle letter in the time zone code has just become noise.

I think we can simplify a bit.

Who cares?


Who cares if your event is PST or PDT? If I know it’s Pacific Time, then 99.9% of the time I don’t need you to tell me whether it’s standard or daylight saving time. So why bother even adding the S or D? Especially if it’s going to be wrong.

For the rare instances that it really matters, then yes, do use the original codes. But because the codes have been so misused, you may have to add an extra note or something to make sure people take notice.

I remember our old office voicemail menu shared the office hours like “9 AM to 5:30 PM Pacific Daylight Time.” That meant a special update to the voicemail twice each year. Ugh – so pointless. I was glad when it was simplified to “Pacific Time.” The hours listed on the website were similarly simplified, to my delight.

An alternative

For everyday communication, let’s just drop the middle letter and use shorter codes for U.S. times. So Eastern Time would be ET, etc. The original example would become 7 PM PT. Below is a table of my proposed shorter time zone codes.

Time Zone Short Code
Eastern Time Zone ET
Central Time Zone CT
Mountain Time Zone* MT
Pacific Time Zone PT
Alaska Time Zone AKT
Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone* HAT or HT

The shorter code is slightly simpler, reduces chance for error, and its meaning should still be obvious when used next to a time.

Or, you could always spell it out, like 7 PM Pacific.


Again, I’m not saying original time zone codes should be dropped entirely. They should probably still be used in more formal publications. But if using them, make sure there is a good reason for the added complexity. And make sure it’s correct and verified by an editor (or multiple editors).

Also, some computer programs, etc. must use the full codes. But we’re human, so we can generalize when appropriate.

* Certain parts of the U.S. do not “celebrate” daylight saving time. That is one case where, for example, MST vs. MDT can matter. But people in those areas should already be aware of that. And events originating from those areas (with outside participants) should probably have an additional note making sure others are aware of the difference anyways.

I don’t know if these new codes will cause any confusion when communicating U.S. times internationally, but these are my thoughts from my own experience. It appears some codes already conflict internationally, so I don’t think using shorter codes would cause additional confusion. If you have similar frustrations regarding time zone codes in your region, feel free to adapt this idea.

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