Telling the time in English is easy once you understand how English speakers refer to the different parts of the clock at different times of the day. It always follows the same pattern. So once you know how it works, you can confidently announce the time at any time of the day or night.
Read on to find out more about telling the time in English using the 12 hour clock and the 24 hour clock, which prepositions to use, how to ask the time, how to give the time and how the time is used commonly to talk about the working day. We have also included a list of idioms and common phrases using the word ‘time’.
Vocabulary for telling the time in English
O’Clock, ‘Past’ and ‘To’
For hourly times use the phrase ‘o’clock’. For example: It is three o’clock (pronounced: ‘three oh clock’)
For any minute past the hour but before the half hour, use the phrase ‘past’ the previous o’clock, or read out the full numbers. For example:
five past three (3.05) – or three-oh-five
ten past three (3.10) – or three-ten
Quarter past three (3.15) – or three-fifteen (sometimes people say ‘fifteen minutes past’, but never just ‘fifteen past’)
Twenty past three (3.20) – or three twenty
Twenty-five past three (3.25) – or three twenty-five
Half past three (3.30) – or three thirty
For any minute beyond the half hour, use the word ‘to’ the next O’clock. For example:
Twenty-five to four (3.35) – on BBC radio, the presenters often say ‘five-and-twenty-to’ (or five-and-twenty-past’) instead of twenty-five-to/past
Twenty to four (3.40) – or three forty
Quarter to four (3.45) – or three forty-five
Ten to four (3.50) – or three fifty
Five to four (3.55) three fifty-five
The 12 hour clock and AM / PM
Telling the time in English can use the 12 hour clock or the 24 hour clock.
The 12 hour clock splits the day into two 12 hour sections. One lasts from midnight to noon and the second half lasts from noon to midnight.
In the 12 hour clock, we need a way to differentiate between morning and evening, so we use the letter ‘am’ and ‘pm’ to show whether 11.20 is in the morning or at night.
Hours before noon are called ‘a.m.’ (pronounced ay-em), which comes from the Lain ‘ante meridiem’.
Hours after noon are called ‘p.m.’ (pronounced pee-em), which comes from the Lain ‘post meridiem’.
Often we write these shortenings without the full stops in between the letters, so they are often written in common usage as ‘am’ and ‘pm’.
So 11.20 in the morning is 11.20 am (eleven twenty or twenty past eleven)
and 11.20 at night is 11.20 pm
Telling time in English
The 24 hour clock
If we use the 24 hour clock to tell the time in English, there is no need to use ‘am’ and ‘pm’. This is because 11.20am is simply 11.20, and 11.20 pm is 23.20.
When we get past 12 noon the time does not go back to 1, but instead moves onto 13, often written with an ‘h’ after the number, for example 13h.
In Britain we often use the 12 hour clock (except for transport timetables when the 24 hour clock is always used) but in other European countries it is common to use the 24 hour clock in social situations when writing about the time. Here the suffix ‘h’ is often used, for example 14h or 14.30h. However when speaking, the 12 hour clock is always used.
When it is in the morning and there is only a single digit number in use (e.g. one through to nine) the 24 hour clock uses a zero first in formal situations, such as a train timetable, for example, 08.30.
Examples from the train timetable above:
The first train departs London Euston at 0635 (six thirty-five, twenty-five to seven, or 6.35 am) and arrives at Watford Junction at 0650 (six fifty, 6.50 am, or ten to seven)
The train that departs from Birmingham International at 1726 (seventeen twenty-six, five twenty-six, 5.26 pm, or twenty-six minutes past five) arrives at Birmingham New Street at 1741 (seventeen forty-one, five forty-one, 5.41 pm, or nineteen minutes to six).
How to separate the numbers when writing the time?
Some people use a dot as punctuation to separate the numbers when writing a digital time (2.30 pm), other people use a colon (14:30) – colons are especially popular in 24 hour clock format. Sometimes people use nothing at all for the 24 hour clock (1430). Whichever format you chose, try to keep it consistent.
Examples of telling time in English with an analogue clock
Consider the clock faces on the left. Here, the first clock can show: ten past nine / nine ten / 9.10 am / 9.10 pm or 21.10
The second clock shows: twenty-five past seven / seven twenty-five / 7.25 am / 7.25 pm or 19.25
The third clock shows: five past six / 6.05 am / 6.05 pm or 18.05
Tip: When it is 5 minutes past the hour, we never say the numbers only (‘six five’) we would have to say ‘six oh five’, using the sound ‘oh’ to represent the zero for 6.05.
The fourth clock shows: Quarter past twelve / fifteen minutes past twelve / 12.15 pm or 00.15
Prepositions for telling the time in English
We normally use the preposition ‘at’ with times for making plans for a specific time. For example, ‘I am meeting them at two o’clock’.
But we use the word ‘in’ for a less definite amount of time. For example, ‘I am meeting them in two hours’. This implies a a more general time.
We also use the preposition ‘in’ for a general time of day. For example ‘in the morning’, ‘in the afternoon’ and ‘in the evening’.
If it is late we normally say ‘at night’, for example ‘it’s ten o’clock at night’ to mean 10 pm. We also say ‘in the night’ to mean in the middle of the night generally.
In Britain, we can add the phrase ‘in the morning’ to mean a time before noon (if it is before very early say before 7am, we can say ‘early morning’ or if it is in the middle of the night, say 1 am until 3 am is ‘in the early hours’.
We say ‘in the afternoon’ for a time between noon and 6 pm, and ‘in the evening for a time after around 6 pm. The phrase ‘at night’ starts to be used later on, after around 9 pm.
Asking the time in English
There are a few phrases that we can use to ask the time. Here are some examples:
Can you tell me the time, please?
Could you tell me the time , please?
Excuse me, do you have the time?
Do you know the time, please?
To answer someone else’s question and give them the time, we need to use the word ‘it is’ or more commonly, ‘it’s’. For example:
It’s four o’clock
It’s half past two
It’s about seven
It’s exactly eight o’clock
It’s around ten thirty
If you can’t help them, you might want to say:
I’m sorry, I don’t have my watch on
I’m sorry, I can’t see the clock from here
Time used to describe the working day
There are a few phrases we use related to time in English speaking countries. Traditionally the ‘working day’ is called ‘9 to 5’. This means 9 am until 5 pm. This is the time when most shops are open.5
These hours of 9 to 5 are also often called ‘office hours’. Of course, office hours today can also mean until 6 pm or later but traditionally it was always from 9 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon/evening.
These office hours were also used in the famous film and song by Dolly Parton ‘9 to 5’ when she sings ‘working nine to five, what a way to make a living’. The phrase is often used in a negative way to imply working hard for little pay and for someone else’s benefit. As Dolly sings:
‘Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
Yawn and stretch and try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin’
Out on the street the traffic starts jumpin’
With folks like me on the job from 9 to 5′
‘Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it’
Other phrases related to work are ‘full time’ and ‘part time’. A full-time job usually means a job that you do every day for around 40 hours per week.
A part-time job means a job that that you do for fewer hours than a full time job. This might be three days a week or perhaps four hours per day, instead of the usual eight hours per day for a full-time job.
If someone is taking ‘time off’, it means they are taking a break from work or study.
Phrases using the word ‘time’
Other phrases with the word ‘time’ include:
Having the time of my life – having an amazing time (‘Are you enjoying the concert?’ ‘Yes, I’m having the time of my life!’)
A race against time – a situation where you have to rush to finish something (‘It was a race against time to finish the essay before the deadline’)
Time will tell – the passing of time will show the result (‘only time will tell whether Brexit is a good or bad thing for the UK’)
Behind the times – old-fashioned, not up-to-date (‘He can’t even use a computer; he is really behind the times’)
In the nick of time – at the last moment, just before the deadline (‘I caught the train in the nick of time, seconds before it left the station’)
To stand the test of time – to continue successfully for a long time (This film is still relevant today – it has really stood the test of time’)
To have time on your hands – to have a lot of spare time, to have too much free time (‘He is always gossiping with his colleagues – he must have a lot of time on his hands’)
Time flies – time passes quickly (‘time flies when you are having fun’ – this is a common idiom used to describe something that is so enjoyable that time feels like time passes more quickly than it really does)
Let us know your thoughts about time
What other time-related phrases or idioms do you know?
Do you find telling the time difficult in English?
Which time-related words or phrases do you find most confusing?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments.