What Time is it?

A pretty straightforward question generally, but one with a surprisingly complex range of possible answers.

I was thinking about this recently during a lesson when we were looking at how to say the time in English. (I’d pretend I was having some profound thoughts about the passage of time on New Year’s Eve, but as you can see from the header image I’m writing this on 28 December).

It’s something that every English teacher ends up teaching now and then in lower-level classes. And it’s generally pretty simple, divided into two basic systems, American English and British English.

The American system is the easier to get the hang of, as you say the hour, then the number of minutes. 12.15 is just twelve fifteen. Easy, though there are I’m sure many regional variants. I know for example that ‘Ive definitely encountered something like It’s a quarter of three in many American books.

The British-English system takes a little more getting used to. You have to remember your halves and quarters, and whether to say past or to. And then to is tricky, because you have to calculate how many minutes remain until the top of the next hour. There are again some specific variations. In Ireland (and I think perhaps in some parts of the UK too) it’s quite common to say It’s half seven instead of It’s half past seven. I’ve seen this confuse people on many occasions, as they’re not sure if it means 7.30 or 6.30 (i.e. “half of seven”).

The potentially confusing element of both systems is that we only use the numbers between 1 and 12 when speaking about time. In other languages it’s quite common to say the equivalent of It’s fourteen twenty for 14.20.

Still, there’s nothing hugely complicated there that people can’t get used to in time. But while refreshing some of the basics of telling the time in this lesson, I began to think about how we really talk about the time, at least in British English. Having refreshed the students’ memories of using past and to, I then decided we’d do a little practice, beginning with asking them to tell me the current time.

It’s… twenty-two past three, one of them said. Which of course seemed correct based on the rules we’d gone through, but I thought to myself, No-one would ever really say that. It’s not simply the case that for everything up to 30 minutes past the hour, we say past. We also tend to only refer to multiples of 5. In the British-English system anyway. I don’t think Americans would have any problems saying It’s two twenty-three, for example. But I’d say something like It’s about twenty past two, or It’s just after twenty past two. Or, if I’m feeling particularly daring, I’ll simply lie and say It’s twenty past two.

Why do I, and so many others, do this? Why not just say the exact time, as speakers of American English, and many other languages, are happy to do? I thought at first it was because it’s usually shorter to use a multiple of five, but that’s not always true. The numbers from 21 to 25, for example, all have the same number of syllables.

I think it’s more to do with analogue watches (or just watches, as they used to be known). Those twelve marks or numbers running round the face really draw your attention. The space between them feels like an absence, so we’re drawn more to the multiples of five, which we also of course use for the hours, so we’re also simply used to using them. And of course we like the multiples of ten because they’re round numbers.

I think this has also affected our lives beyond language. Have you ever set an alarm for a time like 07.58 or 08.03? If you have, you’re probably in the minority. Most of us will set it for a nice round number like 08.00. And then when we wake up, but feel like talking a few extra minutes in bed, we’re not going to get up at 08.03 or 08.04, are we? No, it makes much more sense to wait until 08.05, doesn’t it? You might even know someone who will only set the volume on their TV to a multiple of five.

Perhaps this is going to change in time. Most people are now used to looking at the time in a digital format, probably also using the 24-hour format, on their phone or computer, so perhaps we’ll get used to referring to the time in a more straightforward manner. Some of us though, will probably never be able to set the volume to 23.

And that’s 2017 done! It certainly flew by. In the real world it was a mixed bag, to say the least. No year can be perfect if it includes the right of Nazis on the streets of the United States, being enabled by the American president. In this little corner of the internet though, it’s been very busy and interesting. Thank you all for reading and sharing your thoughts. Here’s hoping you have a great 2018: I’ll see you then!

11 thoughts on “What Time is it?

  1. As an American who grew up in the pre-digital 1970s, I remember distinctly that we all gave time in “tos” (or “tills”) and “afters,” and rounded to the nearest 5 — or 10, or even 15. (We didn’t say “half seven” or “quarter eight” though.)

    Context mattered. If I idly asked the time I was likely to hear “quarter to ten” even if it was 9:38. But if I said “oh my gosh, I’m going to be late, what time is it?” I was more likely to hear “almost 20 to ten” instead.

    It gave a mild fluidity to time that is lost today. If you had an appointment at 10:30, it was understood that this meant 10:30 by your watch, and it was assumed you made reasonable efforts to set it accurately. So if I expected someone at 10:30 and they arrived at 10:35, I would assume that their watch was simply 5 minutes different from mine. Today, thanks to digital time, if I arrive at my doctor’s office at 10:35 for a 10:30 appointment, they glare at me for it.

    It seems strange now, but it was hard to accurately set a clock or a watch before digital time. Today our phones all stay synced to atomic clocks, and so when our phone says it’s 10:00, buddy, it’s 10:00. But in the ’70s there were few good ways to set clocks. In my hometown we could phone 234-7121 and listen to the kind recorded woman say, “First Bank time, 7:17; downtown temperature, 33.” That was considered to be accurate, and so most of us set our clocks that way. It was also not widely known, but when network television identified itself (e.g., “This is the NBC Television Network”) at the top of the hour, it was *precisely* X:00:00. I set my watch against that, because I have a bit of the geek in me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s so interesting to think about how quickly technology has changed and has influenced how we think about time. I find I’m much more likely to leave things till the last minute now that I can see the exact time in digital format. If I have to do something at 5 but see that it’s 16.58, I know I can wait two minutes. But if I looked at my analogue watch, it’d be “almost five,” and therefore time to get started.
      We take standardised time for granted now, but I sometimes think about the time before atomic clocks and how easy it would have been to lose track of the exact time.


  2. Further to what Jim said, when my classmates first got digital watches, they’d compete as to whose was the most accurate: “I set mine from the radio last night.” “Well, I set mine from the television this morning.”

    Korean allows “times to the hour”, but is usually given as “times past the hour”. Once I said to my wife (in English) something like “five to four” or “ten to nine” and she just couldn’t understand me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Here in Canada we do “to” — and “after” sooner than “past”. “Quarter after two; twenty after two.” Unless it’s 2:30, then it’s “half-past.”
    I’ve met Pennsylvania Dutch folks who say “Til.” At 1:45 it’s “quarter til two.” Rather unique.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “til two” takes away the awkwardness of “to two”. “Two to two” is very awkward. There is a word stress exercise sentence which runs “There is two minutes’ difference from [four to two] to [two to two], and from [two to two] to [two], too.” Even after I have explained and demonstrated, no student has ever said it correctly.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] referring to the general concept of time as a dimension. The second is more specific, referring to the particular hour and minute of the day. The third is also more specific than the concept of time in general, referring to a particular […]


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