If you’ve ever written an application that accepts date and/or time inputs from an external source (a person, an uploaded file, posted XML, etc.) then you’ve no doubt had to deal with parsing some text representing a date into a data structure that a computer can understand. Similarly, you’ve probably also had to take values from those same data structure and turn them back into their original formats. Most (all?) suitably modern development platforms expose some kind of parsing and formatting functionality for turning text into dates and vice versa. In .NET, the DateTime data structure exposes ‘Parse’ and ‘ToString’ methods for this purpose. This post will focus mostly on parsing, though most of the examples and suggestions below can also be applied to the ToString method.
The DateTime.Parse method is pretty permissive in the values that it will accept (though apparently not as permissive as some other languages) which makes it pretty easy to take some text provided by a user and turn it into a proper DateTime instance. Here are some examples (note that the resulting DateTime values are shown using the RFC1123 format):
DateTime.Parse("3/12/2010"); //Fri, 12 Mar 2010 00:00:00 GMT
DateTime.Parse("2:00 AM"); //Sat, 01 Jan 2011 02:00:00 GMT (took today's date as date portion)
DateTime.Parse("5-15/2010"); //Sat, 15 May 2010 00:00:00 GMT
DateTime.Parse("7/8"); //Fri, 08 Jul 2011 00:00:00 GMT
DateTime.Parse("Thursday, July 1, 2010"); //Thu, 01 Jul 2010 00:00:00 GMT
Dealing With Inaccuracy
While the DateTime struct has the ability to store a date and time value accurate down to the millisecond, most date strings provided by a user are not going to specify values with that much precision. In each of the above examples, the Parse method was provided a partial value from which to construct a proper DateTime. This means it had to go ahead and assume what you meant and fill in the missing parts of the date and time for you. This is a good thing, especially when we’re talking about taking input from a user. We can’t expect that every person using our software to provide a year, day, month, hour, minute, second, and millisecond every time they need to express a date. That said, it’s important for developers to understand what assumptions the software might be making and plan accordingly. I think the assumptions that were made in each of the above examples were pretty reasonable, though if we dig into this method a little bit deeper we’ll find that there are a lot more assumptions being made under the covers than you might have previously known.
One of the biggest assumptions that the DateTime.Parse method has to make relates to the format of the date represented by the provided string. Let’s consider this example input string: ‘10-02-15’. To some people. that might look like ‘15-Feb-2010’. To others, it might be ‘02-Oct-2015’. Like many things, it depends on where you’re from.
This Is America!
Most cultures around the world have adopted either a “little-endian” or “big-endian” date format. (Source: Date And Time Notation By Country) In this context, a “little-endian” date format would list the date parts with the least significant first while the “big-endian” date format would list them with the most significant first. For example, a “little-endian” date would be shown as “day-month-year” and “big-endian” would be “year-month-day”. It’s worth nothing here that ISO 8601 defines a “big-endian” format as the international standard.
While I personally prefer “big-endian” style date formats, I think both styles make sense in that they follow some logical standard with respect to ordering the date parts by their significance. Here in the United States, however, we buck that trend by using what is, in comparison, a completely nonsensical format of “month/day/year”. Almost no other country in the world uses this format. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have done some international travel, so I’ve been aware of this difference for many years, but never really thought much about it. Until recently, I had been developing software for exclusively US-based audiences and remained blissfully ignorant of the different date formats employed by other countries around the world.
The web application I work on is being rolled out to users in different countries, so I was recently tasked with updating it to support different date formats. As it turns out, .NET has a great mechanism for dealing with different date formats right out of the box. Supporting date formats for different cultures is actually pretty easy once you understand this mechanism.
Pulling the Curtain Back On the Parse Method
Have you ever taken a look at the different flavors (read: overloads) that the DateTime.Parse method comes in? In it’s simplest form, it takes a single string parameter and returns the corresponding DateTime value (if it can divine what the date value should be). (Note: many of you probably use the TryParse method. While the method overloads for TryParse are slightly different, the underlying behavior of that method with respect to date formats is the same). You can optionally provide two additional parameters to this method: an ‘System.IFormatProvider’ and a ‘System.Globalization.DateTimeStyles’. Both of these optional parameters have some bearing on the assumptions that get made while parsing a date, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the ‘System.IFormatProvider’ parameter.
The IFormatProvider exposes a single method called ‘GetFormat’ that returns an object to be used for determining the proper format for displaying and parsing things like numbers and dates. This interface plays a big role in the globalization capabilities that are built into the .NET Framework. The cornerstone of these globalization capabilities can be found in the ‘System.Globalization.CultureInfo’ class. To put it simply, the CultureInfo class is used to encapsulate information related to things like language, writing system, and date formats for a certain culture. Support for many cultures are “baked in” to the .NET Framework and there is capacity for defining custom cultures if needed (thought I’ve never delved into that). While the details of the CultureInfo class are beyond the scope of this post, so for now let me just point out that the CultureInfo class implements the IFormatInfo interface. This means that a CultureInfo instance created for a given culture can be provided to the DateTime.Parse method in order to tell it what date formats it should expect. So what happens when you don’t provide this value? Let’s crack this method open in Reflector:
When no IFormatInfo parameter is provided (i.e. we use the simple DateTime.Parse(string) overload), the ‘DateTimeFormatInfo.CurrentInfo’ is used instead. Drilling down a bit further we can see the implementation of the DateTimeFormatInfo.CurrentInfo property:
From this property we can determine that, in the absence of an IFormatProvider being specified, the DateTime.Parse method will assume that the provided date should be treated as if it were in the format defined by the CultureInfo object that is attached to the current thread (Thread.CurrentThread.CurrentCulture). The culture specified by the CultureInfo instance on the current thread can vary depending on several factors, but if you’re writing an application where a single instance might be used by people from different cultures (i.e. a web application with an international user base), it’s important to know what this value is. Having a solid strategy for setting the current thread’s culture for each incoming request in an internationally used ASP .NET application is obviously important, and might make a good topic for a future post. For now, let’s think about what the implications of not having the correct culture set on the current thread.
Let’s say you’re running an ASP .NET application on a server in the United States. The server was setup by English speakers in the United States, so it’s configured for US English. It exposes a web page where users can enter order data, one piece of which is an anticipated order delivery date. Most users are in the US, and therefore enter dates in a ‘month/day/year’ format. The application is using the DateTime.Parse(string) method to turn the values provided by the user into actual DateTime instances that can be stored in the database. This all works fine, because your users and your server both think of dates in the same way. Now you need to support some users in South America, where a ‘day/month/year’ format is used. The best case scenario at this point is a user will enter March 13, 2011 as ‘25/03/2011’. This would cause the call to DateTime.Parse to blow up since that value doesn’t look like a valid date in the US English culture (Note: In all likelihood you might be using the DateTime.TryParse(string) method here instead, but that method behaves the same way with regard to date formats). “But wait a minute”, you might be saying to yourself, “I thought you said that this was the best case scenario?” This scenario would prevent users from entering orders in the system, which is bad, but it could be worse! What if the order needs to be delivered a day earlier than that, on March 12, 2011? Now the user enters ‘12/03/2011’. Now the call to DateTime.Parse sees what it thinks is a valid date, but there’s just one problem: it’s not the right date. Now this order won’t get delivered until December 3, 2011. In my opinion, that kind of data corruption is a much bigger problem than having the Parse call fail.
What To Do?
My order entry example is a bit contrived, but I think it serves to illustrate the potential issues with accepting date input from users. There are some approaches you can take to make this easier on you and your users:
- Eliminate ambiguity by using a graphical date input control. I’m personally a fan of a jQuery UI Datepicker widget. It’s pretty easy to setup, can be themed to match the look and feel of your site, and has support for multiple languages and cultures.
- Be sure you have a way to track the culture preference of each user in your system. For a web application this could be done using something like a cookie or session state variable.
- Ensure that the current user’s culture is being applied correctly to DateTime formatting and parsing code. This can be accomplished by ensuring that each request has the handling thread’s CultureInfo set properly, or by using the Format and Parse method overloads that accept an IFormatProvider instance where the provided value is a CultureInfo object constructed using the current user’s culture preference.
- When in doubt, favor formats that are internationally recognizable. Using the string ‘2010-03-05’ is likely to be recognized as March, 5 2011 by users from most (if not all) cultures.
- Favor standard date format strings over custom ones. So far we’ve only talked about turning a string into a DateTime, but most of the same “gotchas” apply when doing the opposite. Consider this code:
This will output the same string regardless of what the current thread’s culture is set to (with the exception of some cultures that don’t use the Gregorian calendar system, but that’s another issue all together). For displaying dates to users, it would be better to do this:
This standard format string of “d” will use the “short date format” as defined by the culture attached to the current thread (or provided in the IFormatProvider instance in the proper method overload). This means that it will honor the proper month/day/year, year/month/day, or day/month/year format for the culture.
Know Your Audience
The examples and suggestions shown above can go a long way toward getting an application in shape for dealing with date inputs from users in multiple cultures. There are some instances, however, where taking approaches like these would not be appropriate. Sometimes the provider or consumer of date values that pass through your application are not people, but rather other applications (or other portions of your own application). For example, if your site has a page that accepts a date as a query string parameter, you’ll probably want to format that date using invariant date format. Otherwise, the same URL could end up evaluating to a different page depending on the user that is viewing it. In addition, if your application exports data for consumption by other systems, it’s best to have an agreed upon format that all systems can use and that will not vary depending upon whether or not the users of the systems on either side prefer a month/day/year or day/month/year format. I’ll look more at some approaches for dealing with these situations in a future post.
If you take away one thing from this post, make it an understanding of the importance of knowing where the dates that pass through your system come from and are going to. You will likely want to vary your parsing and formatting approach depending on your audience.