Time Formats

This file summarizes the rules defining how a time string is interpreted. These rules are superficially quite complicated but the have the important property that almost any string that follows conventional notation rules will be parsed correctly. Ambiguous strings are given their (subjectively) "best", interpretation.


When parsing a character string, the string is first separated into a sequence of tokens and delimiters. A token consists of any sequence of letters or digits (but not a mixture of both). A delimiter is any single punctuation character or a single letter if it is separating numeric tokens. A blank is a valid delimiter if no other delimiter is present; otherwise blanks are ignored. For example, the string "4 July, 76/12h34:56.789" contains seven tokens: {"4", "July", "76", "12", "34", "56" and "789"}. The corresponding delimiters are, in order: {blank, comma, slash, "h", colon, period and blank}. Tokens and delimiters are not case-sensitive.

Date Parsing

A single date token is interpreted as either a four-digit year or as an eight-digit merged date of the form "yyyymmdd". If only the year is given, the date is assumed to be January 1. No other single-token format is recognized.

A pair of tokens is interpreted as a numeric year plus a day-of-year. A year must contain either two or four digits: years between 0 and 49 are interpreted as 2000 to 2049; years between 50 and 99 are interpreted as 1950 to 1999. The day-of-year must fall between 1 and the number of days within the given year; for example, a value of 366 is only permitted if the year is a leap year. The delimiter must be a slash, dash, period or blank.

A set of three tokens is interpreted as a month, day and year in some order. Year values must contain either two or four digits, as above. Months are integers 1-12 or English names "January"-"December", possibly abbreviated to three or more letters. Days are integers between 1 and 31 (or less, depending on the month). The sequence of tokens is interpreted as month-day-year, day-month-year, and year-month-day until a valid interpretation is found. The valid delimiters are slash, dash, period and blank. The two delimiters must be the same except for the special case "month day, year" where a comma is allowed after the second token.

The following strings all parse to July 4, 1976: "7 4 1976", "4 jul 1976", "7-4-76", "19760704", "76/186", and "76.186".

Time Parsing

A time may consist of up to four numeric tokens. These are interpreted as the hour, minute, second and millisecond in that order although not all a required; the last token may have a fractional part. The string may end in "AM" or "PM", or else "Z" to be compatible with PDS time formats. Valid delimiters are colons and blanks.

Individual tokens may also end in "H", "M", or "S" to unambiguously indicate hours, minutes, or seconds, respectively. This enables the user to express a time in minutes (without hours) or seconds (without hours and minutes). Each numeric token must fall within the allowed range. For example, the hour must fall between 1 and 12 if AM or PM is specified; otherwise it must fall between 0 and 23. If the minute is specified, then the number of seconds must be <60 unless the day has a leap second; otherwise the last minute of the day must have <61 seconds.

The following strings all parse to 0:01:02: "0:01:02", "0 1 2", "12h 62.00s am", "61s", "1 m 2s 000z", and "1 m 2s 000".

Date-Time Parsing

A string is tested as a valid Julian date, date + time, or time + date, until a valid interpretation is found.

A Julian date is recognized by a first token of "JD" or "MJD". If "JD", then the remainder of the string is interpreted as a numeric Julian date. If "MJD", then the remainder of the string is interpreted a modified Julian date (equal to Julian date - 2400000.5). The valid delimiters are blank and dash. For example, the following are valid strings: "JD 2451545", "mjd-51544.50". Note that the dash is treated as a delimiter, not a sign, so negative numeric values are not recognized.

If this test fails, the string is interpreted as a date followed by a time. The rules for recognizing and interpreting dates and times are summarized above. All possible divisions between the date and the time are considered, staring with all the tokens in the date. Valid delimiters between the date and time are blank, slash, dash, colon, period and "T" (for compatibility with PDS date/time formats). If no valid interpretation is found, the string is then interpreted as a time followed by a date, again starting with all the tokens in the date. In this case the valid delimiters are blank, slash, dash and colon.

The following strings all parse to 0:01:02 on July 4, 1976: "7 4 76 0 1 2", "1976-07-04T00:01:02Z", "July 4, 1976 12:01:02 am", "0 1 2 19760704", and "MJD 42963.00071759259"

Note that the testing goes in the particular order described, so ambiguous strings are always given the first possible interpretation. This may not always be the user's intent, so ambiguous strings should be avoided. A useful set of "rules-of-thumb" helps to prevent this from happening.

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Last updated 17 December 1996

Mark Showalter