In standard usage, ‘daylight saving time’ wins out

The end of daylight saving time offers an opportunity for people prone to correcting to remind us the middle word is singular—”daylight saving time”—although in casual use, it’s just as often rendered plural.

The form “daylight savings time,” exists for no particular reason except for our predilection to pluralize “saving.” There is little harm in the variant form, and most good dictionaries record “savings” as an alternative.

“Savings” as a noun that describes what you have put away in the bank is plural. But your 20 percent Macy’s coupon represents a singular act of saving, and so there is little logic in writing “a savings of 20 percent.” Logic is not our only source of guidance in what constitutes standard English, though, and “a saving of 20 percent” has come to sound a bit odd. It is one of those constructions that authorities call proper despite the overwhelming tide of actual usage.

“The phrase ‘a savings’ occurs so frequently in modern usage that to label it an error would be futile,” concedes Bryan A. Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Style guides still cFall-Daylight-Saving-15-1200x1200all for “daylight saving time.” But the “savings” variant is everywhere, even in edited prose. A search of the Google Books’ American English corpus and English Fiction corpus show the plural form was rare until the 1970s but is now almost as common as the singular form.

In British English, “daylight saving time” is on par with the official “British Summer Time.”

The term “daylight saving” in connection with changing the clocks was introduced in the British Parliament in 1908 with the Daylight Saving Bill. The proposal was based on a 1907 pamphlet distributed by William Willett, “The Waste of Daylight.” Willett’s pamphlet did not use the term “daylight saving.” He proposed to move the clocks ahead 20 minutes each Sunday for four weeks starting in April. The idea was mocked, seriously considered, then abandoned.

Willett wasn’t the first with the idea. The invention is attributed to George Vernon Hudson, an English-born New Zealand entomologist who suggested it to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1895. Some attribute the idea to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a humorous essay about wasting daylight in 1784. But clock time was much less of an issue in the 18th century, and Franklin didn’t suggest adjusting clocks, simply ringing church bells or firing canons to wake people up at a decent time so they wouldn’t waste candle wax in the evenings.

Clocks were first changed in Germany for World War I, and that change was quickly adopted elsewhere. It was mostly abandoned after the war, then readopted for World War II. It wasn’t standardized in the United States until 1966, and we’ve fiddled with it since then.

It’s now daylight saving time for a longer period of the year than standard time, muddying the term “standard.” I often see times listed as “EST” during the summer months, but that’s only valid from the first Sunday in November to the second Sunday in March — a period as short as 18 weeks.

Despite including a compound modifier, the term was not originally hyphenated. The American Heritage Dictionary includes the hyphen, and Garner endorses it. But most dictionaries and style guides do not include a hyphen.

It’s also often capitalized, in the style of “Greenwich Mean Time” and “Eastern Standard Time,” but there is no need to capitalize the concept. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary online capitalizes “Daylight Saving Time,” but the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary does not.

If “daylight” is attached to a specific time zone, style guides offer differing advice:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t call for capitalization with time zones except where proper nouns are concerned, so “Pacific daylight time,” “mountain standard time,” “Greenwich mean time.”
  • The Associated Press Stylebook says to capitalize the full name of the time zone: “Pacific Daylight Time,” etc. Short forms maintain the capitalization of the region: “Mountain time,” “Central time zone.”

For a reminder of proper style, check out this video from Nacho Punch, “Saving Daylight.” My favorite line comes after 1:18.

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