Everyone studies numbers when they first start learning a new language.
However, talking about time involves more than the numbers on the clock.
So instead of simply saying the numbers that you see on the clock, you can sound like a native by using the same phrases and terms that most English speakers do.
Using this post, you will learn every word and phrase you need to tell time like a natural!
What Time Is It? 9 Important Lessons About How to Tell Time in English
1. Learn to Talk About the Time of Day
Numbers may tell you the exact time. However, many people will talk about the general time of day instead of being specific. Here are words that you may hear and use when the exact time is not very important.
Noon means 12:00 p.m., at the very beginning of the afternoon.
“What time are we meeting this weekend?”
“Around noon, so we can sleep in.”
This sometimes means the same thing as noon, because noon is in the middle of the day. Midday can also be any time between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
This is basically when people begin and finish eating lunch (meaning the middle of the day).
“It is supposed to be very hot and sunny today at midday.”
Because this phrase means “after noon passes” it is really versatile. This can be any time between noon (12:00 p.m.) and before the sun sets (usually around 6:00 p.m.). If you do not live on the equator, the time of the sunset is always changing with the seasons. Sunset might be at 4:00 p.m. in the winter and 9:00 p.m. in the summer. This means that “afternoon” can be shorter or longer depending on the season.
“I’m busy all afternoon so let’s have dinner together tonight.”
Midnight means the middle of the night. However, now many people use it to mean 12:00 in the morning (12:00 a.m.), when the next day begins.
The phrase midnight hours refers to any time between 12:00 a.m. and 3:00 in the morning (3:00 a.m.).
“People kiss on New Years Eve at midnight.”
“Twilight” may just be a popular book and movie series to some people, however twilight is actually the time when the sun is barely (very slightly or very little) lighting up the sky. This is usually right before the sun rises or right after the sun sets. The best way to remember this time is that it is in-between when one day is ending and when the new day is starting, and the sky has a blue or purple tint (slight color).
“I love the way that the trees look at twilight.”
Sunset and Sunrise
When the sun is setting (going down) or rising (going up) you can call these times sunset and sunrise. Sunset is right before twilight, when the sky starts to turn pink and orange but is not dark yet. Sunrise happens when the sun starts to come up in the morning (after morning twilight happens) and has the same orange and pink colors as sunset.
“Let’s climb the mountain before sunrise so we can watch the sun come up.”
“I would rather leave in the afternoon and watch the sunset.”
The time of day that is after dark is usually between 9:00 at night and 1:00 in the morning, or even later. It can also be a phrase for when nightlife starts in a city, and people go out to drink or dance when the sun has set completely. A good way to remember this time is that if most people are asleep or going to sleep soon, it is after dark.
“Have you ever been to LA after dark?”
“No, but I heard that it gets crazy.”
The Crack of Dawn
The actual time for the crack of dawn is when you first start seeing light in the sky, but the sun is not visible yet. People often use this term for waking up before the sun, or just very early, around 4:00 and 6:00 in the morning.
“If we want to beat the traffic tomorrow we will need to wake up at the crack of dawn.”
2. Say the Hours
When you tell the time in English, the hours always come first. If you look at the clock and see that it is 3:00 p.m., then you can say “It is three” or “The time is three o’clock.” It is that simple!
Remember that when you are talking about just the hour, and no minutes, then you will often use “o’clock.”
3. Use O’clock
O’clock is shortened from an old phrase meaning of the clock, and is something that you can say after you tell what hour it is. However, you only use this when telling the hour. If you need to include minutes, then you cannot say o’clock.
“Sir, do you know what time it is now?”
“It is twelve o’clock in the afternoon.”
Here is how this works for every hour on the clock:
1:00 — One o’clock
2:00 — Two o’clock
3:00 — Three o’clock
4:00 — Four o’clock
5:00 — Five o’clock
6:00 — Six o’clock
7:00 — Seven o’clock
8:00 — Eight o’clock
9:00 — Nine o’clock
10:00 — Ten o’clock
11:00 — Eleven o’clock
12:00 — Twelve o’clock
4. Know About Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night
There are only twelve hours written on a clock in any part of the English-speaking world. This may be true in the region where you live too. This is a very common system for telling time. However, that means it will be 6:00 twice every day, once in the morning and once in the nighttime! So, how do you talk about 6:00 in the morning and 6:00 at night?
Quite simply, you can say exactly what time of day you are talking about. For example:
Morning (from 12:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.)
1:00 a.m. — It is one in the morning.
6:00 a.m. — It is six in the morning.
11:00 a.m. — It is eleven in the morning.
Afternoon (from 12:00 p.m. to sunset)
1:00 p.m. — It is one in the afternoon.
3:00 p.m. — It is three in the afternoon.
4:00 p.m. — It is four in the afternoon.
Evening (from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.)
6:00 p.m. — It is six in the evening.
8:00 p.m. — It is eight in the evening.
Night (from 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.)
5. Use a.m. and p.m.
When you say something is at six o’clock you should let the person know if you mean a.m. (morning) or p.m. (night). These words are abbreviations for the Latin terms “ante meridiem” and “post meridiem,” which mean before midday and after midday.
“I think I overslept, what time is it now?”
“12:30 a.m. or p.m.?”
6. Talking About Minutes
When you are telling the exact time in minutes, the way that you pronounce the time can be different. For example, when saying 3:05, 3:06, etc. you would pronounce it as “three oh five” or “three oh six,” similar to saying “o’clock.” This is because sometimes we call zero (0) “oh” in English, and saying “oh five” is faster and easier than saying “zero five.”
All other minutes from 10 to 59 are pronounced normally (“ten” and “fifty-nine”). However there are many other ways to talk about minutes other than saying the exact number.
Half an Hour
Since an hour is 60 minutes, half of an hour is 30 minutes. It does not have to be exactly 00:30 for you to use the term half an hour, you can use it for times between 25 and 35 minutes.
“How much longer until 6?”
“About half an hour.”
Quarter of an Hour
Since half an hour is thirty minutes, a quarter of an hour is 15 minutes. You can use the term quarter along with past and until when telling the time. For example, 7:45 is “a quarter till eight“ and 8:15 is “a quarter past/after eight.” We will talk more about these words, past and until, later in this article, so keep reading!
You can still say “quarter” if the number of minutes you have is between 12 and 17.
“How much longer until 6?”
“About a quarter of an hour“
“What time is it right now?”
“A quarter until nine.”
7. Use Military Time
If you do not want to use a.m. or p.m., you may want to go by what Americans call military time.
With this method of counting the hours in the day you start with 00:00 at midnight (12:00 a.m.) and count up from there until 23:59 for 11:59 p.m.
People will also pronounce this differently, so instead of saying “twenty three and zero minutes” for 23:00, you would say “twenty three o’hundred.”
“You need to report to the office at fifteen hundred hours today. After that you can leave at seventeen o’fifty.”
8. Use Classic Phrases from History
When the Clock Tolls/When the Bell Chimes
These are both older terms for telling time, because they are based off of large clock towers, such as Big Ben in England.
Both a toll and a chime mean to ring a bell. In churches and town centers (and sometimes in clocks found in houses) the bell would chime every new hour. So, there are times that you can say you will do something at the start of the next hour using these phrases. You will probably hear this more often in older films and books, and sometimes as a joke.
“I’ll see you after the clock tolls one.”
9. Be More General
Maybe you do not want to use a very exact time, like 7:56. However, you also do not want to be too general by saying “evening” (between 5:00 and 8:00 at night). You can use the terms below to quickly tell around what time it is, without the need to be exact.
Past and Till
You can use these along with any combination of words about time. Which one you use depends if you are counting forwards or backwards.
6:30 can either be half past 6 or it can be thirty minutes till 7. (Till is the more casual way of saying until, you can use either depending on the situation.)
10:30 p.m. — Half past ten. / Thirty minutes till 11.
11:30 a.m. — Half past eleven. / Thirty minutes to 12.
Couple and Few
A couple of anything generally means two of something. If you say that you have a couple minutes it means about two or three minutes. A few usually means three to five of something, so a few minutes is a little bit longer than a couple, however they are usually used in the same way.
Both can tell people that there is only a short amount of time left before something, or can make the time of day less specific. You can use couple and few with minutes or hours.
“How long until we leave?”
“A few minutes.”
“What time is it now?”
“A couple minutes past five.”
Five, Ten or Twenty
When telling the general time people usually count in either fives, tens or twenties. For example, it is much more common to hear a person say “five past eight” than to hear “four past eight.” If a person wants the exact time you can tell them, but a good rule is to count in groups of five since minutes are very short anyways.
“Do you know what time it is now?”
“About ten minutes past midnight.”
“And when do the trains stop running?”
“At twenty after twelve.”
Now you know all the different ways to answer the question “what time is it?” with ease.
It takes practice, but you will be able to say all of these vocabulary words naturally in no time!
Christine McGahhey is an American writer currently living in South Korea who has volunteered for several years to teach students and adults English.
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