English Language Learners Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I first encountered the sentences below on p 121, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (2004; but the newest edition dates at 2015) by Linda Monk. I rewrote the numerals using digits to ease reading.

[ Source: ] The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the 17th Day of September in the Year of our Lord 1787 and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names, [...]

The date is already stated as September 17 1787. So to what does the bolded refer?

share|improve this question
Don't feel bad about this one. This is a very difficult sentence to parse even for a native English speaker. – Daniel Mar 23 at 1:58
I feel like a comma after "America" (or maybe better after "1787") would have made this a lot clearer, but perhaps it wasn't stylistic or it is just a mistake. – Todd Wilcox Mar 23 at 18:07
I'm a native speaker (and fairly good at reading!) and I couldn't figure this out until I read the answers... :) – Numeri Mar 23 at 21:23
@ToddWilcox Except that proper English grammar (which would certainly be used in an official document) does not allow a comma to separate only two items in a list. – Jed Schaaf Mar 23 at 21:52
@JedSchaaf Never heard of it. Commas after 'and' and 'twelfth' would be perfectly acceptable. – EJP Mar 23 at 22:54
up vote 46 down vote accepted

It stands for "The twelfth year from the Independence of the United States of America", since the Independence was in July 4th, 1776. September already counted as one more year, even though the Constitution was written in 1787.

To clarify, July 3rd, 1787 was the last day of the 11th year from the Independence.

It is a common feature among many countries' Constitutions, to state how many years ago happened an event that changed the civil status of the nation.

In Brazil, we have something like this:

Brasília, January 10th 2002; 181st of Independence and 114th of Republic.

share|improve this answer
It may be worth noting that laws, proclamations, and other official documents of the U.S. government are dated from independence in the same way that their equivalents are dated according to the regnal year in the UK. – choster Mar 23 at 12:44
It's worth re-emphasizing choster's comment: Prior to the widespread adoption of the AD/BC/CE/BCE system, regnal years (or the equivalent) were the way to mark official dates in most countries. – R.M. Mar 23 at 14:43
A whole new decimal calendar was based on the French government change: of 1789. – chux Mar 24 at 19:34
Regnal years are still used with Roman pontificates, and were only dropped in the United Kingdom within the present Queen's reign. – Andrew Leach Mar 25 at 12:53
@R.M.: Strictly speaking, AD and BC are formally a regnal-year system, although that's not usually how they're thought of these days (and CE/BCE put a new coat of paint on that without changing the epoch year chosen for the purpose). – Nathan Tuggy May 11 at 0:30

Ditto Joao Arruda. One extra note: The language is a bit formal and archaic. But the construction is "the year (of our Lord = 1787) and (of the independence of the US = 12)". He's expressing the year in two different ways, with an "and" between them.

share|improve this answer
This explanation was essential for me (native English speaker) to be able to parse the sentence. I'm so used to "the year of our lord" as a set phrase, that this had not occurred to me at all. – Randy Orrison Mar 23 at 8:23
+1. I hope that others will upvote your answer (as I did), which I find as equally as beneficient and helpful as the others. So please accept my assurance that I accepted another answer not because of inequity between answers, but because SE presently allows only one acceptance and so I have used my acceptance to aid those with fewer reputation points. – Timere Mar 23 at 15:59
It's confusing that they use a cardinal number for one of them and an ordinal number for the other, as it makes the parallelism less obvious. – Barmar Mar 23 at 16:07
@ToddWilcox 12 is a cardinal number, 12th is an ordinal number. english.stackexchange.com/questions/28314/… – Barmar Mar 23 at 18:37
@ToddWilcox My points is that they chose to use "12th" in one clause, but didn't use "1787th" in the other clause, even though that's what they meant. Thus, the parallelism was obscured by the use of different styles of wording. Had they said "Year of our Lord 1787 and of our independence 12", it would be more obvious what was meant. – Barmar Mar 23 at 21:03

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.