Periods of Time: Centuries

Given the nature of our discipline—the study of ancient texts within their contexts—it is not surprising to encounter frequent references to historical periods. For example, the most recent issue of our Journal of Biblical Literature contained seventy instances of the terms century and centuries, an average of once every 3.8 pages. We imagine that similar journals show the same pattern.

In order to promote consistency of usage, this post outlines the primary guidelines to keep in mind when referring to centuries of any time, whether ancient or modern. As always, we intend only to set SBL Press preferences, not to declare what is right or wrong or what other publishers may choose to do in their own contexts.

SBLHS §4.2 provides the broader principles that we ask authors to follow. This post builds upon and extends those principles with particular focus on designating centuries.

1. SBL Press prefers not to abbreviate the words century or centuries; authors should spell out the words whenever they are used (see examples under number 2).

2. Since by definition the number of a century is always one or two words, it should be spelled out in every case: in the main text, within parentheses, and within notes.

seventh century BCE (not seventh cent. BCE or 7th century BCE or 7th c. BCE)

twenty-first century (not twenty-first cent. or 21st century or 21st c.)

3. If the era (BCE or CE) is not clear from the context, one should specify it alongside the listing of the century.

The thirteenth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas …

The thirteenth-century BCE king Muwatalli II …

4. When the number + century forms an adjectival phrase, the phrase should be hyphenated, even if the number itself is already hyphenated. If the era is also specified, it is not hyphenated.

sixth-century BCE deportation

twenty-first-century phenomenon

5. If an otherwise unhyphenated word further modifies the adjectival phrase, it is not hyphenated as a part of the phrase.

late tenth-century fortification

early twentieth-century development

6. If, however, a hyphenated prefix modifies the adjectival phrase, it is hyphenated as a part of the compound phrase.

mid-first-century uprising (see further CMS §7.85.4)

7. Combining an unhyphenated word and a hyphenated prefix before a compound phrase does not alter treatment of either one. The hyphenated prefix stands independently and parallel to the unhyphenated word.

mid- to late first-century uprising (not mid-to-late first-century uprising)

8. Because the number and term century are spelled out, it is generally preferable to use words in conjunction with them to indicate a range of centuries. However, it is permissible to use an en dash (not a hyphen) to specify that same range.

during the twelfth to the tenth centuries BCE

during the twelfth–tenth centuries BCE

9. Further modification of such a phrase by an unhyphenated or hyphenated adjective does not alter the construction shown in number 8 above.

the late twelfth to the mid-tenth centuries BCE

the late twelfth–mid-tenth centuries BCE

10. Consider recasting a complex construction that combines an en dash to show range and a hyphen within a compound adjectival phrase.

original: the thirteenth–twelfth-century Egyptian destructions

revision: the thirteenth- and twelfth-century Egyptian destructions

11. Writers sometimes struggle to know whether to use century or centuries as the appropriate label when multiple centuries are in view. In most cases, the correct answer can be determined by asking whether (a) the singular century could be used to modify each century number in the phrase or (b) the entire range of centuries is the basic unit in view.

a: A series of disturbances, destructions, abandonments, and rebuilds seems to extend from the late thirteenth into the twelfth century. [One could use century after thirteenth, so the singular is appropriate here.]

b: The city dominated the hill country during the twelfth–tenth centuries BCE.

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