There are two common ways of telling the time:

(a) using ‘past’ and ‘to’

or

(b) giving hours, then minutes.

(a) If we use ‘past’ and ‘to’, we normally use increments of five minutes. Let’s use the example of two o’clock (‘o’clock’ means ‘of the clock’):

2.00 – two o’clock

2.05 – five (minutes) past two

2.10 – ten (minutes) past two

2.15 – quarter past two

2.20 – twenty (minutes) past two

2.25 – twenty-five (minutes) past two

Note that you can say ‘minutes’, but it is entirely optional and often not used.

Now we have arrive at the half hour mark. There are two ways of saying this time, which of course both mean the same thing:

2.30 – (a) half past two

(b) half two

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We don’t say 30 minutes past – ever. Be aware, however, that the pronunciation of the word ‘half’ changes between (a) and (b). For (a), we pronounce it ‘haff’; in (b), we say in the more traditional way – ‘half’, which sounds like the middle vowel sound in the words ‘start’ or ‘heart’ (‘arr’).

After this halfway point, we move on from ‘past’ and begin using ‘to’, as follows:

2.35 – twenty-five (minutes) to three

2.40 – twenty (minutes) to three

2.45 – quarter to three

2.50 – ten (minutes) to three

2.55 – five (minutes) to three

You can see that when we use ‘to’, we follow it with the next hour: e.g. 6.50 is ‘ten (minutes) to seven’; 12.45 is ‘quarter to one’; and so on. We don’t use the word ‘minutes’ after the word ‘quarter’, as it means ‘fifteen minutes’ on its own.

We do not use ‘am’ (ante meridium’ – ‘before midday’) or ‘pm’ (‘post meridiem’ – ‘after midday’) if we use this method. So we don’t say ‘five past twelve pm’ or ‘quarter to four am’.

Note also that for 12am (midnight) we can say, for example, ‘five past midnight’ instead of ‘five past twelve’, or ‘quarter to midnight’ instead of ‘quarter to twelve’ – but this is less common. For 12pm (midday), we can used ‘past’ midday; but it would be strange to say ‘to midday’, e.g. ‘ten to midday’.

(b) The second way of telling the time is probably easier; with this method we can also use ‘am’ and ‘pm’. Instead of ‘am’ you can ‘in the morning’ – easy. However with ‘pm’, it depends on the time of day. There is no definite demarcation of times of day, but generally it is as follows:

12pm – 5pm – afternoon

6pm – 10pm – evening

10pm – 12am – night (remember – 12am is ‘midnight’ and is technically the morning)

Apart from these considerations you simply say the hour first, then the number of minutes into the hour (the part which would have involved using the word ‘past’ in method A). For example:

7.22 – seven twenty-two

8.53 – eight fifty-three

11.17 – eleven seventeen

If we are saying a time that has minutes less than 10 – e.g. 3.06pm – we pronounce the ’06’ as “oh six”.

With this method we can be more specific and say the time precisely, rather than to the nearest five-minute increment. Use method (b) if you want to be more precise, for example when consulting bus times, and so on.

Next time we look at prepositions of time, we will focus on dates – days and months. For now, try doing our test to see how well you can tell the time in English.

A. Porter

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