Telling the time in English

In the last few posts, I’ve written about using prepositions to talk about times and places, and about dates in English. Something else my students find difficult is telling the time in English. How many ways are there to say each time? When do we use am and pm? When do we say o’clock? Do English speakers use the twenty-four hour clock? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

How many different ways are there to tell the time?

There are at least two ways to say each time: the analogue and the digital time. If you feel unsure about the times, the digital times might be easier to start with. You just say what you see, and you can be sure everyone understands the time you want to say. Here are examples of digital times:

  • 11:00 eleven (am)
  • 11:05 eleven oh five
  • 11:10 eleven ten
  • 11:15 eleven fifteen
  • 11:30 eleven thirty
  • 11:40 eleven forty
  • 11:45 eleven forty-five
  • 11:55 eleven fifty-five

And here are the analogue ones:

  • 11:00 eleven (o’clock) (in the morning)
  • 11:05 five past eleven
  • 11:10 ten past eleven
  • 11:15 quarter past eleven
  • 11:30 half (past) eleven
  • 11:40 twenty to twelve
  • 11:45 quarter to twelve
  • 11:55 five to twelve

When do we use the twenty-four clock?

Generally, we only use the twenty-four hour clock (e.g. 16:00 or 21:30) when we’re talking about travel arrangements like flight or train times, or when we want to be very specific. You can sometimes see it written, particularly on timetables, but we rarely use the twenty-four hour clock when we speak.

When do we use am / pm?

As we don’t often use the twenty-four clock when we speak, we normally go back to one when we reach twelve at midday. To make it clear whether we’re talking about the morning or the evening, we can use am or pm. Am is for 00:00 – 11:59 and pm for 12:00 – 23:59. For example:

I’m meeting a friend at 2pm.

My appointment is at 11am.

Similary, we can also say in the morning or in the afternoon/evening:

I’m meeting a friend at two in the afternoon.

My appointment is at eleven in the morning.

However, if it is already clear from the context whether we’re talking about the morning or evening, there’s no need to say am/pm or in the morning/afternoon/evening. For example:

I’m meeting a friend at two. (It’s not likely that we’re meeting at two in the morning.)

My appointment is at eleven. (I probably don’t have an appointment with the doctor, mechanic, etc. late in the evening.)

When do we say o’clock?

We say o’clock for full hours, for example, three o’clock or ten o’clock. We can’t say o’clock with times like half past, ten to, etc. or with the twenty-four clock. We also can’t use it with am and pm, but we can say it before in the morning/afternoon/evening.

It’s three o’clock.

It’s ten o’clock in the morning.

Its ten past four o’clock.

It’s fifteen o’clock.

It’s nine o’clock am.

Common mistakes when telling the time

  • I start work at 8 o’clock am in the morning.–> We can just choose one from o’clock, am and in the morning, or we leave out all of those words as it’s clear from the context it’s probably the morning.
  • We’re meeting at five hours.–> Unlike in some other languages, English doesn’t use the word hour to tell the time. We can leave out the word hours or replace it with o’clock/pm/in the evening.
  • 09:30 “half (past) ten–> In English, we also use half to say it’s thirty minutes past the hour. For example, 09:30 is half past nine and 14:30 is half past two. Particularly British English speakers often say half nine for 09:30 half two for 14:30.
  • 09:45 quarter for ten –> The minutes on the right side of the clock are past (e.g. ten past, twenty past), and the minutes of the left are to (e.g. twenty to, ten to). For 09:45 we say quarter to ten.
  • The train leaves at ten past fifteen. –> If we we use the twenty-four hour clock, then it’s always in digital form, e.g. fifteen ten.

Do you have any tips for telling the time? Is it very different from the times in your language? I’d love to read your comments below. 🙂

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