How Do You Refer to a Time Zone if the Time in Question Could Occur on Any Day of the Year?

A few weeks ago David Munn of Fair Isaac Corporation sent me the following email:

Your email below reminded me of a pet peeve of mine that I don’t believe you’ve written about. You wrote “My class runs from 4:30PM to 6:30PM EST.” Your usage is correct because you are referring to a time in November.

However, I’m seeing more and more people using the acronyms PST, CST, EST, and GMT in emails, particularly when referring to meeting times, regardless of the time of year. It seems to me to be a fairly recent trend, as I don’t remember seeing this as much in prior years.

It’s obvious that most people (including many lawyers) don’t understand that these acronyms refer to Standard Time and don’t take Daylight Saving Time (or British Summer Time) into account. People use these even when they are referring to times in the summer, when PDT, CDT, EDT, and BST (British Summer Time) are in effect.

So if someone proposes a meeting at 1 p.m. PST on July 5, it technically means 2 p.m. in California, and 4 p.m. in Minneapolis, even though the writer undoubtedly meant 1 p.m. Pacific (PDT)/3 p.m. Minneapolis (CDT).

While this is only a minor annoyance when people are referring to meeting times, I have also seen lawyers use these acronyms in contracts. For example, “Product Support Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST.” What the drafter probably intended in that case was 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time, regardless of whether we’re on Standard Time or Daylight Saving Time. That’s probably what the parties understand as well, but the contract doesn’t state that.

It becomes more problematic if the usage is something like: “In order to terminate this agreement the Buyer must give written notice to the Seller no later than 1:00 p.m. PST on July 5, 2007.” Does that mean the buyer really has until 2 p.m. Pacific time? That’s how I would read it.

I’ve occasionally pondered this issue, and David’s email me prompted me to look into it more closely.

Let’s consider first what I think is the easier issue. With respect to the termination provision in the last paragraph of David’s email, a court would have to be extraordinarily pedantic to conclude that by referring to “1:00 p.m. PST [rather than PDT] on July 5, 2007” the parties in fact had in mind 2:00 p.m. PDT. The path of least resistance would certainly be to chalk it up to drafter confusion.

But how to handle David’s other example, “Product Support Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST”?

I’ve rooted around for guidance, but to no avail. I even inquired with the online Chicago Style Q&A. Their initial response, hilariously enough, was that I should consult a lawyer.

Here’s one solution: If you’re referring to a time that could occur on any day during the year, don’t say—picking a time zone at random—”Pacific Standard Time” or “Pacific Daylight Time” or, heaven forbid, “Pacific Standard Time or Pacific Daylight Time, as applicable.” Instead just say “Pacific Time.”

But in a follow-up email, the indefatigable David Munn pointed out one context where this solution wouldn’t work:

What if one of the contracting parties were in a state (or portion of a state) that doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time, and the other were in an area that does observe it? For example, party 1 is in Phoenix (always MST except for the Navajo nation) and party 2 is in Denver (MST or MDT, depending on the time of year).

In this context, when Colorado is on Mountain Saving Time “1:00PM Mountain Time” would occur an hour later in Denver than it would in Phoenix.

In such contexts you could simply specify that the time is that in a given city, presumably one with a nexus to the transaction—”6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Denver time.” Indeed, that approach seems the simplest to use even if an entire state observes or doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time.

And you might want to use either approach—”Pacific Time” or “Los Angeles time”—even when stating a time on a known date. That would spare you having to remind yourself when Daylight Saving Time applies. It would also preclude you from using the wrong reference. And it would make sense to apply the same usage to all references to time, whether they occur on a known date or could occur on any day of the year.

For what it’s worth, the folks at the Chicago Style Q&A thought both “Pacific Time” and “Los Angeles time” acceptable, although they remained uncertain why I was making such a fuss. If I were to pick one approach to use across the board—and in drafting, that’s generally the best practice—I’d go with “Los Angeles time.”

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.