• 3-minute read
  • 22nd July 2014

Everything You Need to Know about the Word ‘Century’

It isn’t just history students who need the word ‘century’ (although it might crop up more often for historians than others). And if you’re referring to the past in your work, it pays to know how this word works.

Let’s take a look at a few key factors in using the word ‘century’.

Should You Write Centuries As Word or Numerals?

We can write centuries as either words or numerals (e.g. ‘eighteenth century’ or ‘18th century’). But which should you use in your work?

This may depend on the style guide you’re using. Different guides may have different rules on how to write centuries. Thus, if your university, school, or publisher has a preferred style guide, make sure to check it for advice.

Otherwise, though, it is largely a matter of choice. We’d suggest writing centuries out in full as words in formal or academic writing. But as long as you use a clear and consistent style, either words or numerals are fine.

Know Your Boundaries

It can be hard to know when one century begins and another ends. This is because we usually start counting years at 1 AD, so everything from 1 AD to 100 AD is the first century. And that means that a century number is usually one higher than the two digits at the start of a year within that century.

For instance, the seventeenth century began in 1601 and ended in 1700, encompassing every year in between those dates. Thus, even though the year 1632 starts with a ’16’, it was part of the seventeenth century.

Remember, then, that the number of a century usually refers to the previous one hundred years, not the two digits at the start of a four-digit year.


Another problem that often crops up is whether, and when, to hyphenate centuries. When used as a noun (i.e. to refer to a particular period of one hundred years), there is no need to add a hyphen:

This vase was made in the eighteenth century.

Find this useful?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.

However, when using a compound phrase including ‘century’ as an adjective, adding a hyphen helps to ensure clarity:

This is an eighteenth-century vase.

This rule applies to most other compound phrases as well. If you’re using it as an adjective, hyphenate. If you’re using it as a noun, don’t hyphenate.

Capitalisation and Abbreviation

Generally speaking, ‘century’ should not be capitalised, so it always reads ‘century’ rather than ‘Century’. The exception is when ‘century’ is used at the start of a sentence or in a proper noun (e.g. ‘20th Century Fox’).

Finally, centuries can be abbreviated. Sometimes this is just the number (e.g. 18th century) and sometimes it is the word ‘century’, too. For instance:

This C18th document sheds a lot of light on the issue.

The event likely occurred in the 18th c.

These shortened versions of the word are fine in your notes or in less formal writing as long as it is clear what they mean. But you wouldn’t usually use these abbreviated formats in academic work or formal writing!

Comments (2)
Andrew Monk
30th October 2020 at 12:03
OED suggests lower case c. https://public.oed.com/how-to-use-the-oed/abbreviations/#c
    30th October 2020 at 14:45
    Thanks for the comment, Andrew. This post was a bit out of date, so we've polished it up a little and added the OED style of abbreviation as an alternative.

Get help from a language expert.

Try our proofreading services for free.

More Writing Tips?
Trusted by thousands of leading
institutions and businesses

Make sure your writing is the best it can be with our expert English proofreading and editing.