Telling the Time in English!

What Time Is It? The Time of Day and How to Ask for the Time

140202-clock-fullWe all live very busy lives these days. Usually a glance
at your watch tells you whether you’re going to be late for your next appointment. But what if you don’t wear a watch, and there’s no other clock in sight? Ask someone what time it is!

But first, let’s look at the dial or clock face:

What time is it? Picture © Nicole Heusser

What time is it? Picture © Nicole Heusser

Of course, the dial / clock face of an analogue clock isn’t complete without the two hands, which tell us the time. In the picture above, the time is nine o’clock.

In English, an hour is divided into four quarters:

  • o’clock: we only use this on the hour, so for example four o’clock, seven o’clock etc.
  • quarter past: If it’s exactly fifteen minutes past the hour, we can say: It’s (a) quarter past three, (a) quarter past nine etc.
    Anything between the hour (o’clock) and a quarter past is: xx (minutes) past the hour, so for example ten past five or seven minutes past six.
  • half past: if it’s exactly thirty minutes past the hour we can either say: it’s half past eight or half past two etc. In spoken English, it’s quite common to say it’s half eight or half two etc.
    CAUTION! This means it’s 8:30 (am or pm) and NOT 7:30 (am or pm)! This is a mistake especially German speaking language learners tend to make, so be careful there.
  • quarter to: if it’s exactly fifteen minutes to the hour, we can say it’s (a) quarter to eleven or (a) quarter to five etc.
    Anything between a quarter to and the hour ( o’clock) is: xx (minutes) to the hour, so for example five to twelve or ten minutes to two.

A few general rules:

You don’t have to say minutes after 5, 10, 20, 25, but you must use minutes for all other numbers:
twenty past eleven / eighteen minutes past three.

O’clock is never used together with am or pm!

In spoken English, there is no 24 hour clock, instead we use am (ante meridiem [Latin]before noon) or pm (post meridiem [Latin] after midday)

In English, the 24 hour clock is sometimes used for timetables. Next departure for Glasgow: 17:45.

Twelve o’clock is either midday / noon (pm) or midnight (am).
CAUTION! To avoid confusion, it’s best not to use am or pm together with the twelfth hour. Instead use: noon / midday or midnight.

A few useful phrases

Asking for the time:

  • What time is it? (informal)
  • Excuse me, could you tell me what time it is / is it? (formal)
  • Have you got the time? (informal)
  • What’s the time? (informal)
  • What is the time, please? (formal)

Are you ready for a little quiz?

Telling the Time!

Congratulations - you have completed Telling the Time!. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
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Vocabulary (in order of appearance)

  • glance: a quick look
  • dial / clockface: The part on a clock / watch which shows you the time through numbers.
  • analogue: the opposite of digital. An analogue clock uses hands to measure the time, whereas a digital clock uses just numbers.
  • hands: (here) the two moving pointers on a clock face / dial which show the exact time
  • avoid: (here) to make an effort not to do something

If you liked this post, why not leave me a comment below telling me what time it is where you are right now? 🙂


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