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The midnight hour

A mildly agitated editor comes to me to ask about the precise use of midnight, and I open to The Associated Press Stylebook, which I cite when it suits me, and point out that midnight belongs to the day that is ending, not the day that is beginning. “I believe that that is not so,” he says. I shrug. AP has spoken.

If I had wanted to pile on, I could have pointed out that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says the same thing. Or that even Wikipedia—we can treat the Devil as Scripture for our purposes—says that while midnight registers on digital clocks as “a.m.,” the exact “00:00” moment does not in fact belong to the new day.

When you think about the origin of the word, it makes sense. If midnight is the middle of the night, nightfall came on the old day, not the new one.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:24 PM | | Comments (20)
        

Comments

One could make the case that the 00:00 instant doesn't belong to either day, but is the borderline between them.

The U.S. military treats 0000 as belonging to the following day, and 2400 (which is the same instant) as belonging to the preceding. I believe this is also so in Italy, where 24-hour time is routinely used. For avoidance of doubt, however, things are often scheduled at 0001.

All this about the very instant of 12:00:00, right? Any disagreement that 12:01 is in the next day, or 12:00:01? A valid discussion/point, but how often does it come up, really? How many things are scheduled for or happen precisely at midnight?

A similar issue I always struggled with was how to write about a robbery that happens at 1:17 a.m.

For our 8 a.m. report, did it occur last night or this morning? I always opted for a "robbery overnight" and later saying 1:17 a.m.

>"which I cite when it suits me"

John, your crafty wielding of authorities is masterful. :-)

DaveH,

The end of the old year and the first cuckoo of the cuckoo clock are two that come to mind.

I always wondered about reporting or logging events that took place between 1 and 2 a.m. on the night we switch to or from Daylight Saving Time.

Our friends at the Chicago Manual of Style suggest avoiding the term, but then improbably suggest, for example, "Rodriguez was born at midnight, August 21–22." I suppose this offers clarity, but I think AP has it right on this one.

Mr. Cowan asks: "A valid discussion/point, but how often does it come up, really?" Apparently, you have missed the rash of AP stories about the possibility of a partial government shutdown "Friday at midnight." To everyone except readers familiar with the AP Stylebook, this is confusing and points out the need to change the style.

I'm not currently obliged by AP style, so this doesn't rule me one way or the other. For New Year, people seem to have sorted this out for themselves pretty well: what do we count down to, "5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1"? And I think cuckoo's gonna go 12 times at 12, no matter which day it's considered, no?

Gary - quote was actually from me, not Mr. Cowan, but who cares about little details. (Oh, wait ...) And yes, I very specifically have avoided all supposed government shutdown stories as a waste of time and space. But I agree with you that I consider 12:00:00 as the first instant of the new day, and would rather see the AP style changed. I'd love to hear their reasoning why they've got it the way they do.

Memory mantra, repeat after me: midnight tonight, midnight tonight, midnight tonight. .... Does anyone ever say "midnight this morning"? No.

On a somewhat related note, I was answering a question yesterday about the meaning of a.m. and p.m., the whole "ante meridiem, post meridiem" bit. And herein lies a way of examining this matter.

The "meridiem" is "noon" (lit. "mid day"), so of course 12:00 a.m. is "before the mid-day." It really does seem that "midnight" wants to belong to the following day.

Which brings us to "noon" itself. When you think about this, you see that "12:00 p.m." isn't meaningful because 12:00 noon is the meridiem - it isn't "before" or "after" anything. It's the zero point. Ergo, I would argue that 12:00 a.m. is meaningful, but 12 hours later you have "12 noon."

However,

Back in my Navy days I would sometimes stand a midwatch, the watch that nominally went from midnight to 0400, but in practice went from 2345 to 0345. Things occasionally would happen at midnight and they had to be recorded in the watch log with a note as to what time they occurred. I don't remember the question ever being which day it was but rather whether the time was 2400 or 0000. As a result, nothing ever happened at midnight. It either happened at 2359 or 0001.

The a.m./p.m. point convinces me even more that midnight begins the new day, as it is the instant when the clock switches from one to the other.

I would be the last to deny you the right to your convictions about this matter, but you are mistaken.

It's crazy no matter what. 11 pm is followed by ... 12 am? 11 am by 12 pm? What?

In Russian they say "the night from Tuesday into Wednesday", which avoids the problem.

Well, even I am not infallible, but my conviction is that 24.00 is yesterday and 00.00 is today; that 12 am just seems very vague compared with 12 midnight (likewise 12 noon is much better than 12 pm); and that however sure Mr McIntyre and the satraps of the AP might be about the matter of midnight, confusion may well remain in the mind of the reader.

The editor's job, as ever, is to provide copy in a state of clarity, not just a state of correctness. So the sentence needs to be worded in a way that does not leave an understanding of the date wobbling on the rocky foundations of an insecure "midnight".

I really only care What Wilson Pickett has to say...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVGFfj7POA

I'm with Eve (as usual). Oh, and I like Stefano, too.


Dahlink,

I'm guessing you are referring to Stefano (Langone), the young, spunky Italian-American "American Idol" hopeful?

Last Wednesday evening Stefano did a super, impassioned version of the Percy Sledge classic, "When a Man Loves a Woman", and for me, didn't really deserve to be in last week's bottom three contestant bracket, along w/ Pia Toscano and Jacob Lusk.

But sadly, sometimes that's how the 'Idol' cookie crumbles, factoring in the wacky phone-in voting deal that allows any call-in fan to vote multiple times (w/ a stipulated limit) for the same contestant.

It was a travesty that Pia has been eliminated------ one of probably the top three finest, most powerful voices in this year's competition. As the judges have pointed out, maybe she does lack that certain performance pizzaz, and stage presence, but the crucial wow-factor was definitely off-the-charts when it came to her humongous, pure, always-on-pitch voice.

Judge Jennifer Lopez seemed genuinely moved to tears of both outrage, and disappointment when host Ryan Seacrest announced that Pia would be leaving, as Stefano escaped 'the hook' to sing yet another day. Fellow judges Randy Jackson and Steve Tyler reacted w/ both puzzlement, (dare I say shock), and justifiable anger seeing such a promising talent as the beautiful, and talented Miss Toscano being denied, so relatively early in the competition.

Oh well, that's show biz, folks!

Stefano has managed to dodge the dreaded elimination 'bullet' a few times, of late, so whether he can raise his game in the ensuing stretch, and hang in there close to the finale, is a big question mark.

Dahlink, would you agree that this years crop of contestants has been a special bumper, vocally-gifted one, particularly in light of last years kind of mediocre roster? (I personally loved Crystal Bowersox last season. She had that special 'something'.)

Ducky "Too Pitchy, Dog" Isaksson.................. Simon sad it would be like this. HA!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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