As a non-native English speaker, who never says "Xth century" in my language, phrases such as:

In the late 19th century, they invented a lot of cool stuff!

... always forces me to stop and think about what is being said. "Obviously", they mean the 1800s, but to my eyes and my brain, the first thought it that they mean the "late 1900s", AKA the 1990s. I have to really concentrate to make myself believe that they are talking about "one century prior to what makes sense".

Even when the context should make it more or less clear, just seeing that "9" in "19th century" brings my thoughts over to "the 1900s" rather than the "1800s".

Also, what if I don't know for sure that the author of the text is a native English speaker? Maybe that person has the same confusion as I, and he really does mean to say the "late 1900s"?

You can imagine how confused I used to be as a child to see "20th century entertainment" logos and whatnot in the beginning of popular culture TV shows... or when it changed to "21st century" when it had switched over to year 2000! For the longest time, I assumed that they just wanted to be "futuristic" and didn't even realize that "21st century" actually means "the 2000s"...

Is this a common confusion? Maybe even among native English speakers?

  • What are you actually asking? 'The 19th (nineteenth) century was a century that began on January 1, 1801, and ended on December 31, 1900. It is often used interchangeably with the 1800s, though the start and end dates differ by a year.' Wikipedia. Does that answer your question? Does Does 'nineteen hundreds' refer to 1900-1909 or 1900-1999?? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 15 '20 at 11:59
  • Does this answer your question? Does "nineteen-hundreds" refer to 1900–1909 or 1900–1999? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 15 '20 at 12:00
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    Yes, it’s a common confusion amongst ordinary native English speakers. Educated speakers cope easily and may deny any confusion, but clearly confusion does exist and change is desirable. – Orbital Aussie Feb 15 '20 at 12:05
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    My late father used to refer to the first decade of the 20th century as 'the 1900s', so it took me a while to get used to the fact that when people talked about 'the 1800s' they meant the whole of the 19th century and not just 1800-1810! – Kate Bunting Feb 15 '20 at 14:14
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    @tchrist (re deleted comment) 'The year before 1AD was 1BC.' Not at the time :) – Edwin Ashworth Feb 15 '20 at 16:07

The answer is "yes", for the reasons given in the comments. Computer scientists and some mathematicians habitually start counting from zero, but the inventors of our calendar were not modern computer scientists or mathematicians. In fact, they almost certainly had never heard of the concept of zero, or if they had heard of it, would have rejected it as meaningless.

So we are saddled with a confusing nomentclature.

  • Are you sure about the inventors of our calendar? The Anno Domini dating system was invented in the 6th century and didn't become firmly established until later, but zero had been used in calculating Easter in the 4th century. In any case, even with a well-understood concept of zero, why would anyone want to call what we call the 1st century the 0th century? – nnnnnn Feb 16 '20 at 1:45
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    Which century is year 1 AD in? The "zeroth century" is not something that would come naturally to anyone, even computer programmers. And anyway, it would be wrong because it is the first century. From 1 AD to 100 AD. The first 100 years. Then the second century starts in 101 AD. Confusing, no? Up to the 20th century which was either 1901 to 2000, or 1901 to 1999 (a 99 year century!), depending on when you think the millennium was. – CJ Dennis Feb 16 '20 at 4:56
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    It isn't confusing if you stop and think, as @CJDennis says. Your first year of life is the time before you are one year old. The nineteenth century was the century up to 1900. – Kate Bunting Feb 16 '20 at 9:30
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    @KateBunting Absolutely: similarly the first hundred miles of a journey are miles 1 to 100. If you travel between two places which are 240 miles apart and stop overnight after 120 miles you have stopped 20 miles into the second hundred. – BoldBen Feb 16 '20 at 14:06

Having studied history at university in later life, and as an active member of the Historical Association, I often find myself talking history.

Professional historians always know what "seventeenth century" means. However large numbers, albeit many with a lively lay interest in history, frequently need to be reminded that the seventeenth was the one of the English Civil War and not the one of the French Revolution.

So with such people I am always careful to say "the sixteen hundreds", when I mean the seventeenth century.

So, to answer your question - yes, many native speakers, including otherwise well educated people frequently get this wrong. But people who have studied history seldom do.

Particularly confusing, I find, is when talking about centuries BC, and remembering that the fourth century BC, includes the years from 399 to 301. (It also includes the year 400 - but that's another matter).

  • There is the problem of ambiguity when using "1600s" as some would interpret it to mean "1600-1609". For instance, the Pilgrams established a colony in America in the 1620s. – Hot Licks Apr 16 '20 at 12:29
  • @HotLicks And I wouldn't mind betting that none of them were named Hot Licks! – WS2 Apr 16 '20 at 13:44

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