It ticks. It tocks. It follows you everywhere…
Even when you go to France.
Yes, that’s right. Telling time remains as important of a skill in French as in English.
Don’t be ashamed if you don’t already know how to tell time in French. Every beginner needs to put in their hours to learn it!
Luckily, the clocks are the same in French-speaking countries, so all that leaves us with is a few vocabulary words and phrases, and you’ll have it in no time!
I’ll try to keep the puns at a minimum here as we get through this essential French lesson in four easy steps. Soon, you can move onto meatier topics like French conversation and cool classic films.
How to Tell Time in French in 4 Simple Steps
Step 1: Know Your Numbers
I hate to break it to you, but you can’t tell time without knowing your numbers. The good news is that for our purposes, we won’t go past fifty-nine. Thus, you avoid some of the trickier numbers to remember (at least for now!). Let’s count on, shall we?
After vingt, you simply add the second digit to vingt.
There’s one notable exception of twenty-one, which is vingt et un.
You’ll end up with vingt-deux, vingt-trois, etc. The same method works for thirty, forty and fifty. Just don’t forget that it’s trente et un, and not trente-un. The former just rolls off the tongue better, keeping up French’s reputation for being a beautiful and flowing language.
Et voilà, you can now count to fifty-nine, and at the very least, yell the numbers you see on the clock.
To get your pronunciation on lock, check out this video and practice along!
Something special about French
If you travel to France, the biggest issue you’ll have is getting into the mindset of the 24-hour clock.
You may know it as military time, but over there, it’s just time. While the French do use the 12-hour clock, you’ll see the 24-hour clock used on the digital clocks in France (as well as the rest of Europe). The 24-hour clock and the 12-hour clock are used interchangeably.
I know that you’re groaning over there, but it’s not all that bad. It just takes a little getting used to. It’s easy to change most cell phones and computer clocks to 24 hours (with the added benefit that your phone’s alarm clock will never again accidentally be set to p.m. instead of a.m.) After a few weeks of looking at the 24-hour clock on your phone and converting it to a time you understand, it’ll become second nature.
To convert, just subtract 12 starting at one o’clock p.m. So if it’s 21:52 on your phone, then do some quick math (21 – 12) to get 9. Thus, 9:52 p.m. I promise it’s not that bad.
In fact, here’s a slick shortcut to make the transition even easier: When your hour is in the teens, all you really need to do is subtract two from the ones digit (i.e. 13h00 = 3 – 2 = 1, one o’clock; 19h00 = 9 – 2 = 7, seven o’clock; etc.).
Step 2: Master the Phrases
Now that we have the numbers figured out, we should probably go over how to tell someone what time it is. There’s a very simple formula for it that luckily doesn’t vary much:
Il est ___ heure(s)___.
You plug in the hour before heure(s) and the minutes after. It’s a little different from how we say the time in English, but the only thing you need to be careful of is to not forget heure(s).
If it’s 3:20 in the morning, then it would go a little something like:
Il est trois heures vingt.
In English, we sometimes leave out “o’clock,” and say things like “It’s ten.” In French, you can’t leave out the heures.
When it’s one o’clock…
Since there’s only “one” hour, you use the singular heure instead of heures. This is the only time of day you do this with, and if it’s one in the afternoon, remember that you can get fancy with the 24-hour clock and say: “Il est treize heures.”
Night or day?
We’ve talked about two major options when telling time in French: the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock. If you choose the 24-hour clock (pro-status!) then you simply say: Il est quatorze heures. (It is two in the afternoon.)
But if you’re using the 12-hour clock, there are some instances where you’ll like to make it clear whether you’re talking about morning or night. In English, we have our nifty little tags “a.m.” and “p.m.” In French, we use one of the following:
du matin (in the morning)
de l’après-midi (in the afternoon)
du soir (at night)
Technically, they translate to “of the morning,” “of the afternoon” and “of the night”—so if you want to start saying “It’s three of the morning” in English to help train your brain, by all means (you’ll only sound a little weird).
This leaves us with 2:00 p.m. translating to either:
Il est quatorze heures.
Il est deux heures de l’après-midi.
You may see the appeal of using the 24-hour clock now. No need to use the time-of-the-day tags!
What about noon and midnight? Lucky for you, French also recognizes these magical times of day with special vocabulary:
Midi is for noon, and minuit is for midnight.
You can use them without tagging in heures, like so:
Il est minuit. (It’s midnight)
Il est midi. (It’s noon.)
Step 3: Don’t Fear the Minute Hand
We’ve already briefly gone over how to include the minutes when telling time. Because for real, what do we really have if we don’t have minutes?
The two main things we talked about were numbers one through sixty (check!) and that the minutes go after the word heure(s) (check!). But you know how we sometimes say things like “a quarter till” or “half past ten”? Well, French has that too.
Let’s translate a few times as examples:
1oh45 — Il est onze heures moins le quart.
A little subtraction is involved here, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. Just remember that moins means minus, and that quart is a quarter (equivalent to fifteen minutes).
11h15 — Il est onze heures et quart.
Simply add a quarter to the end, and you’re in business!
You can apply the same concept if you want to say something along the lines of “ten till nine” or “five till seven.” Just plug in dix or cinq after moins, like this:
Il est cinq heures moins dix. (It is 4:50).
Indicating that it’s “half-past” is more cut and dry. All you add after heures is “et demie.”
So if it’s 9:30, you could say,
“Il est neuf heures trente,” or “Il est neuf heures et demie.”
The golden rule
With all these options, there comes one simple rule:
If you are using the 24-hour clock, and it’s after noontime, you shouldn’t use phrases like moins le quart, et demie or et quart. These are fine for the 12-hour clock, but they aren’t commonly used with the 24-hour.
Instead, just say the actual number of minutes after you’ve said the hour (i.e. :15 — quinze, :30 — trente, :45 — quarante-cinq, etc.)
Fun fact: So you know how we call it a minute hand and an hour hand? In French, apparently the hands of a clock are needles, or aiguilles. For the minute hand, it’s la grande aiguille. The hour hand is la petite aiguille.
Step 4: Take a Minute to Polish Your Skills
To see how the French talk about the time in a natural setting, be sure to check out FluentU.
Get a head start with FluentU by signing up for a free trial.
Here are a few tips to get you started on talking about time.
How to ask for the time
Perhaps just as important skill as giving the time, you should know how to find the time. You wouldn’t want to get caught in the middle of a bustling French city without knowing the time of day, now would you?
The main phrase you need to know is:
Quelle heure est-il ? (What time is it?)
Plus, you already know how to answer it when someone asks you!
If you need to ask when a specific event is happening, like a movie or a meeting with friends, you can ask:
C’est à quelle heure ? (What time is it at?)
You can also sub “C’est” for the event you’re asking about, such as a movie in the following example:
Le film est à quelle heure ?
Now you have no excuse for being late!
I can’t let you go away without showing you the bells and whistles, or should I say hands and cogs? Anyway, here’s a short list of some fancy add-ons to sprinkle into your time-telling vocabulary when appropriate.
Vers deux heures. (Around two o’clock.)
Pile ! (on the dot!)
Il est seize heures, pile ! (It’s 4:00 p.m. on the dot!)
If you want to be very general when telling the time, you can always use:
Il est tôt. (It’s early.)
Il est tard. (It’s late.)
Writing it as the French do
The French aren’t as fond of the colon (no, not that colon!) as we are. When writing the time in French, you substitute your colon with an “h.”
So instead of 3:45, it’s 3h45. And instead of 16:50, it’s 16h50.
Double-check your understanding
You got all that, right?
It’s okay if you didn’t. The main thing to take away from all of this is that telling time in French is a vital skill to have on your mastery list. So if you’re still feeling a little shaky on the material, here are a few quizzes to get you in sync!
Thanks for taking the time to—well, learn the time. If you master it as a beginner, then you won’t have to worry about a wrinkle in your time-telling as an intermediate learner. So set your clocks to 24-hours and carry on!
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