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. 🙂

In, at or on to describe places

Last week I wrote about using in, at or on to describe times. This week, I’ve got some advice on how to use these words to talk about places. Is it in the cinema or at the cinema? In Paris or at Paris? In the train or on the train? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

In

We use in to talk about:

  • closed spaces
    • The laptop is in my office.
    • The car is in the garage.
    • They are in the kitchen.
  • cities, regions, countries
    • They live in Norway.
    • The concert is in Glasgow.
    • She works in the Midlands.

At

We say at when we describe:

  • specific points and locations
    • Let’s meet at the front door.
    • I’m at the station.
    • He’s at the cinema.
  • addresses
    • I live at 14 Long Lane.
    • The company is at 17 Regent Street.
    • Is the restaurant at 8 Market Square?

On

On is used to talk about:

  • floors in buildings
    • I live on the second floor.
    • Our hotel room was on the ground floor.
    • The office is on the top floor.
  • a surface
    • The picture is on the wall.
    • The book is on the table.
    • My bag is on the floor.
  • roads
    • The office is on Station Road.
    • The school is on the ring road.
    • There is a traffic jam on the A47.
  • other ‘long’ places
    • There is a bench on the path.
    • We sat on the riverbank.
    • We walked on the beach.

Exceptions and extra trips

  • on the train or in the train?
    • Both! British English speakers say on the train and American English speakers say in the train, so both are possible.
      • I was on the train when you called me.
      • I was in the train when you called me.
  • in the cinema or at the weekend?
    • If we talk about generally being at a location, we use at.
      • My son’s at the cinema.
      • I’m at the office.
      • We’re at the hotel.
    • If we want to stress that we are inside that place, we can use in.
      • My son’s in the cinema, but I’m waiting outside.
      • I’m in the office; I’m not in the car park.
      • We’re in the hotel, so the rain isn’t a problem.

Do you have any other questions about using in, at and on? Or do you have some more tips? Leave them in the comments below!

In, at or on to describe times

Is it on Tuesday or at Tuesday? In winter or on winter? At the weekend or on the weekend? These little words like in, at or on can be difficult to remember because often they are different in every language. Here are some tips to remember how to use them to talk about times.

In

We use in to talk about:

  • months
    • My birthday is in October.
    • We’re going on holiday in July.
    • She started her new job in February.
  • years
    • They started the company in 2011.
    • The next elections will be in 2023.
    • The protests took place in the year 1968.
  • seasons
    • We always go on holiday in summer.
    • It sometimes snows in the winter.
    • The days get longer in spring.
  • times of day
    • He always drinks coffee in the mornings.
    • In the afternoon I’m meeting a friend.
    • The restaurant was very full in the evening.

At

We say at when we describe:

  • specific times
    • The show starts at 6pm.
    • My train leaves at midday.
    • They’re meeting at half past four.
  • festivals
    • We visit our family at Christmas.
    • They will be away at Diwali.
    • What food do you eat at Easter?

On

On is used to talk about:

  • days of the week
    • Our next appointment is on Tuesday.
    • Do you have time on Thursday?
    • I didn’t go the party on Saturday.
  • dates
    • The conference is on 12th March.
    • My flight is on 20th November.
    • On 5th September we’re visiting customers.
  • special days
    • I’m having a big party on my birthday.
    • We always eat a roast dinner on Christmas Day.
    • Are seeing friends on New Year’s Eve?

Exceptions and extra trips

  • at night or in the night?
    • We say at night to talk generally about things that happen during the night.
      • The stars come out at night.
      • At night my cat is very active.
    • We say in the night to talk about one particular night.
      • I heard a strange sound in the night.
      • We’re flying home in the night.
  • at the weekend or on the weekend?
    • Both! British English speakers say at the weekend and American English speakers say on the weekend, so either is possible.
      • The weather was great on the weekend.
      • The weather was great at the weekend.
  • On Sunday morning or at Sunday morning?
    • Here, we say on Sunday morning because the day comes first.
      • I always go running on Tuesday afternoons.
      • We often go out on Friday evenings.
      • He already has plans on Wednesday morning.
  • At Christmas or on Christmas?
    • We say at Christmas to describe the whole festive period.
      • Our company has a party at Christmas.
      • I like to give my friends gifts at Christmas.
      • At Christmas the shops are always busy.
    • On Christmas Day describes that one day.
      • I visited my grandparents on Christmas Day.
      • Lots of people watch films on TV on Christmas Day.
      • Children get up early on Christmas Day.

Do you have any other questions about using in, at and on? Or do you have some more tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

10 common mistakes made by German speakers learning English

When we learn a language, the way we speak the new language is influenced by our native language. One way to reduce this problem is to learn to think in the new language, so we no longer translate from our mother tongue. Despite this, we may still make some mistakes because we have structures and vocabulary from our first language in our mind. Here are some of the most common errors made by German-speaking learners of English.

10. to remind/to remember

These two similar verbs are very often mixed up by learners of English. To remember means to think about something from the past; to remind, on the other hand, means to make someone remember something. It is a transitive verb, which means it is always used with an object. Here are some examples:

I remember my first day at school. 

I will remember to buy bread.

I reminded to buy bread. â€“> I reminded him to buy bread. 

9. to make/to do

German uses the verb machen a lot, so German-speakers often use the verb to make in English. As a general rule, we use to make  when we are talking about creating or forming something, e.g. to make a plan, to make dinner, to make a confession, to make a cake. However, if we are focussing on a process itself, we use to do, e.g. to do a course, to do homework, to do the cleaning, to do someone a favour. This rule doesn’t work in all cases, but it’s a good start.

8. I drive with the bus.

English has several verbs to describe travelling, depending on the distance, the means of transport and whether we are the driver or passenger. Whilst German uses the verb fahren in lots of situations, in English we only use the verb to drive when we are the driver of a car, bus, train or boat. If we use a bike, we say we ride our bikes or we cycle. If we are a passenger, we have several options:

  • I took the bus/the train/a taxi.
  • I got the bus/the train/a taxi.
  • I went by car/boat/bus.
  • My friend gave me a lift. / My friend drove me. (as a passenger in a car)
  • I flew. (also as a passenger on a plane)

7. Is there the possibility to …?

This is another example of English having lots of translations for one word in German. The German Möglichkeit is most often translated as possibility, but in many cases there may be a better English word to use:

  • possibility: something that may happen, e.g. There is the possibility that we may lose the game.
  • option: something that can be chosen, e.g. Consider all your options before you make a decision.
  • opportunity/chance: a situation that makes something possible, e.g. I have the opportunity/chance to learn a new language.
  • way: a method, e.g. There must be another way to solve this problem.
  • can: to be able or possible, e.g. Can I book a table for this evening?

6. I didn’t went.

When using the simple past, we need a helping verb (did) when we form questions and negative sentences. However, only the helping verb needs to be in past form to show the time we’re talking about, so we use did/didn’t followed by the base form of the main verb.

I went. / I didn’t go. / Did you go? I didn’t went. / Did you went?

I saw it. / I didn’t see it. / Did you see it? I didn’t saw it. / Did you saw it?

In the same way, in the simple present, only the helping verb needs an s  added with the third person.

He goes. / He doesn’t go. / Does he go? He doesn’t goes. Does he goes?

She tries. She doesn’t try. / Does she try? She doesn’t tries. / Does she tries?

Here are more tips about using negative sentences.

5. Have you time?

The verb to have has two main functions. It can be used as the main verb of a sentence to mean to own/possess; it can also be a helping verb, often in the present perfect.

The general rule is that if we use to have as the main verb, the negative form is usually don’t/doesn’t have and the question form is ‘Do you have …?’

I have enough time. –> I don’t have enough time. –> Do you have enough time? (main verb)

When it is used as the helping verb, the negative form is haven’t/hasn’t and we can make questions such as ‘Have you seen …?’

I have seen the film. –> I haven’t seen the film. –> Have you seen the film? (helping verb)

4. Yesterday I have been …

One of the hardest things about learning English is mastering the tenses. It can be confusing to decide which tense to use, and the structure of present perfect looks like the most commonly used past tense in German. However, signal words like yesterday, last week, last year and on Wednesday that show that an action is completed and not relevant for now are clues that we need to use the simple past.

Yesterday I have been to work. –> Yesterday I went to work.

Follow this link for more tips on the present perfect and past simple.

3. Two persons

There are a few special cases when English speakers use persons instead of people, but these are only in legal or very formal texts, or signs in lifts or buses (e.g. â€˜maximum 10 persons’). In all other cases, we use people as the plural form of person.

There are five persons in my office. –> There are five people in my office.

2. If I would have …

In if sentences in English, would and will do not normally belong in the same half of the sentence as if. Instead, we use the present simple, past simple or past perfect forms to show a condition:

If I see her, I’ll tell her. (First conditional: If + present simple , will + base form. These situations are possible and likely.)

If I saw her, I would tell her. (Second conditional: If + past simple , would + base form. These situations are possible but unlikely.)

If I had seen her, I would have told her. (Third conditional: If + past perfect , would have + past participle. These situations are not possible because they’re in the past.)

  1. Informations

Unlike in many other languages, information in English is uncountable and therefore it is not possible to talk about ‘one information’ or ‘informations’. It’s always simply ‘information’. The same goes for advice.


Can you think of any other typical mistakes? Which tips do you find most useful?

Five common mistakes when learning English

Learning a language is not always easy. There are new words to learn, grammar structures to master and different situations to practise using our new skills. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when speaking a new language; it’s part of the learning process. I’ve collected five common mistakes when learning English and some tips on how to correct them.

1. If + will/would

If sentences can be confusing. There are lots of different types of if sentences and we can even mix them. However, one important rule is that will or would do not go in the same part of the sentence as if. They do not like each other! Here are some examples:

If I will see her, I will tell her.
If I see her, I will tell her.

If I would get the job, I would be very happy.

If I got the job, I would be very happy.

2. Double past tense

When we make negative sentences or questions in the past tense, we normally use the helping verb did or didn’t. This verb shows we are talking about the past. That means we don’t add -ed or use the past form of the main verb. For example:

I didn’t went to the show.
I didn’t go to the show.

Did you saw the email?
Did you see the email?

More tips on building negative sentences.

3. When to use present perfect

There are several rules that help us to decide if we need present perfect or simple past. Probably the most important one is that we cannot use present perfect with time words that show that something is finished, such as:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • last month
  • on Tuesday
  • in October
  • in 2017
  • in the morning

Have you gone to the gym yesterday?
Did you go to the gym yesterday?

Has she called the client last week?
Did she call the client last week?

I’ve written on more tips on using the present perfect and past simple here.

4. Negative modal verbs

Modal verbs are special helping verbs. When we make a negative sentence with a modal verb (can, must, may, should, must, might, etc) we do not use don’t. Instead, we just add not after the modal verb.

I don’t can speak Spanish.
I can’t speak Spanish.

You don’t should wear your hat inside.
You shouldn’t wear your hat inside.

Must has special rules!

We don’t must finish the presentation today.
We don’t have to finish the presentation today.
(We can, but it’s not necessary.)

Note: We mustn’t smoke in the office.
(It is forbidden.)

5. Present simple or continuous?

This is a common mistake for both beginners and advanced learners. If an action is repeated, we use simple present. If an action is right now or for a short time around now, we use present continuous.

Every day I’m starting work at 8am.
Every day I start work at 8am.

At the moment I learn Russian.
At the moment I’m learning Russian.

More tips about present tenses can be found here.


Do you have any other tips to help with these topics? What do you find most difficult in English?

Say or tell?

Many languages have just one verb to express both say and tell, but in English there is an important difference between the two. Confusing the two can sometimes change the meaning of the sentence. But, don’t fear! There is a simple trick to remember when to use each verb.

The basic rule is we say something, but we tell someone something.

I said (that) I was leaving.

I told my friend (that) I was leaving.

That is optional in these sentences.

If we use the verb say and wanted to include the person, we need to before the person’s name.

I said to my friend (that) I was leaving.

More example sentences:

We said (that) the meeting room was booked.

We told our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

We said to our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

They said (that) they would go.

They told us (that) they would go.

They said to us (that) they would go.

Phrases with tell

There are also some special phrases with the verb tell, for example:

  • to tell the truth
  • to tell a lie
  • to tell the difference
  • to tell the time
  • to tell tales

Can you think of more examples?

Are there any other verbs you find difficult to use in English?

15 English/German false friends

One challenge – and source of confusion – for all language-learners is false friends. German and English do share many words which have either been adopted from the other language or which have similar linguistic roots. However, so-called false friends look or sound similar in two languages but have entirely different meanings! Here are 15 common false friends in English and German that often catch learners out.

eventuell/eventually

eventuell = perhaps

eventually = schließlich/letztendlich

irritieren/to irritate

This one could cause offence if misunderstood: if you are ‘irritiert’ in German, you are not irritated but confused!

irritieren = to confuse

to irritate = nerven

weil/while

weil = because

while = während (noun = die Weile)

das Gift/gift

das Gift = poison

gift = das Geschenk

aktuell/actual

aktuell = current

actual = tatsächlich

When spoken, different syllables are stressed: aktuell vs actual

sensibel/sensible

sensibel = sensitive

sensible = vernünftig

Note that the stress is different here too: sensibel vs sensible

Who/wer/where/wo

This four-way false cognate is particularly confusing for beginners!

wo = where

wer = who

spenden/spend

The German ‘spenden’ has a more charitable meaning than the false friend ‘spend’.

spenden = to donate

to spend = ausgeben

die Milliarde/million

Numbers are also a sticking point when learning a new language. Mixing these two words completely changes the amount you are talking about!

die Milliarde = billion

million = die Million

(die Billion = trillion)

der Chef/chef

These two professions have very different roles in the workplace!

der Chef = boss

chef = der Koch

das Gymnasium/gymnasium

And these two locations have very different functions!

das Gymnasium = grammar school

gymnasium = die Sporthalle

kontrollieren/to control

Though these two words can sometimes have a similar meaning, for example in the sense of ‘quality control’, they are often confused by learners of both languages.

kontrollieren = to check

to control = steuern/leiten/beeinflussen

checken/to check

checken = to understand/get it

to check = prüfen/kontrollieren

Note that ‘checken’ is a colloquial word most often used by younger people. It can also be used in the context of checking emails (‘meine E-Mails checken’).

die Nudeln/noodles

German uses ‘Nudeln’ to describe both noodles and pasta. To avoid confusion, you can specify that you’re talking about ‘asiatische Nudeln’ when you mean noodles.

die Nudeln = pasta/noodles

noodles = asiatische Nudeln

bekommen/to become

Lastly, the ultimate English/German false friend:

bekommen = to receive

to become = werden


I hope you find these tips helpful. 🙂 Do you know any other English/German false friends? If so, feel free to share them below.

Asking questions in the present simple

When we learn a new language, we learn lots of new vocabulary. We quickly learn to make sentences. But it’s also important to ask questions. We need questions when we are travelling, at work or at school. This post focuses on making questions in the simple present tense.

Questions with a helping verb

Let’s take a simple sentence in the present tense:

I like chocolate.
Subject – verb – object

The main verb in this sentence is like.

To make a question, we also need a helping verb. The helping in the simple present is normally do. This goes at the beginning of the question, and the subject and the main verb swap places:

Do you like chocolate?
Helping verb – subject – main verb – object

Here is another example:

They work in Manchester.

Do they work in Manchester?

Here is an example with the main verb do. It sounds strange because we say do twice, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb.

I always do my homework.

Do you always do your homework?

He/she/it

If the subject in the sentence is he/she/it (a person or a thing) we add an ‘s’ to the verb.

She plays tennis.

To make a question we use the helping verb does but the main verb does not have an ‘s’. We only need one ‘s’ in the question.

Does she play tennis?

Most verbs use do as a helping verb in the simple present, but there are some special verbs with different rules.

Questions without a helping verb

The verb to be doesn’t have a helping verb. To make a question, just swap the verb and the subject:

I am happy.
Are you happy?

He is here.
Is he here?

They are finished.
Are they finished.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs include can, must, should, etc. They are used with other main verbs in the sentence. They are like helping verbs. If there is a modal verb, there is no extra verb helping verb in the question. We just swap the modal verb and the subject.

I can speak Spanish.
Can you speak Spanish?

They should be here.
Should they be here?

We will see the film.
Will we see the film?

With W question words

If we use a W question word (when, where, why, what, etc.), this comes at the beginning of the question. After that comes the helping verb do.

When do you start work?
Where do you live?
Why do you like the film?
What do you think about the new project?


Extra practice
It can feel strange to use "do" to make questions, but it's 
important to practise this form. Make a short list of verbs 
from your course. For each verb, say and then write a 
question with "do" as a helping verb. 

What questions do you often ask at work or at school?

Present simple or present continuous?

English is famous for having lots of tenses to choose from. The first tenses to learn are the present tenses, talking about now. In English, we have different ways of thinking about what ‘now’ means. In this post, I’ve explained some of the main differences between the present simple and present continuous and when to use these tenses.

Form

Let’s take a look at the form of these tenses first.

The present simple is constructed like this:

I work. – I don’t work. – Do you work?

She works. – She doesn’t work. – Does she work?

When we form negative sentences and questions, we use the helping verb do. When we talk about he/she/it, we add an ‘s’ to the main verb (or helping verb in negative sentences and questions).

The present continuous is constructed like this:

I am working. – I am not working. – Are you working?

She is working. – She is not working. – Is she working?

In these sentences, we always need the helping verb be and the ing form of the main verb.

Facts

When we talk about facts and things that are always true, we use the present simple. For example:

Water boils at 100 degrees.

The town is 20 miles from the coast.

He has dark hair.

Routine

When we talk about routines and repeated actions, we use the present simple. There are some signal words that show this, including often, usually, sometimes, rarely, never, every day, once a year, etc. If we answer the question “How often….?” we use also the present simple.

I leave the house at 7 am every morning.

We go to the cinema once a month.

He usually has meetings on Tuesdays.

The company closes over Christmas every year.

Actions right now

When we talk about actions taking place at this moment, we use the present continuous. Signal words for this include right now, at the moment, at this minute, today, this morning, just, etc. For example:

I’m doing my homework.

Right now I’m finishing the report.

At the moment I’m trying to call the hotline.

Today we’re discussing the budget.

Actions around now

We also use the present continuous for actions around now. This means something might not be happening at this moment, but it is a temporary situation still ongoing. For example:

I’m learning Spanish.

We’re working on the new project.

She’s staying with a friend for a month.

Changes

To describe changes taking place now, we use the present continuous. For example:

Our customers are using our online chat more often.

More people are cycling to work.

Young people are becoming more interested in politics.

Future plans

We can also use the present continuous to describe future plans that are set and have been planned, often with someone else. For example:

I’m going on holiday in June.

We’re visiting our sister at the weekend.

They’re going out for lunch tomorrow.

Summary

As a general rule, it could be helpful to remember that if something only happens once or for a short time, we use the present continuous, and if it happens more than once, we use the present simple.


Extra practice
Make a short list of verbs from your course. For each verb, say
and then write two sentences with that verb, one in the present
simple and one in the present continuous. For example: 'work' -->
'I work from nine to five every day.' / 'I am working on an 
important project at the moment.' 

Do you have any more tips and tricks to remember which tense to use?