5 tips for telling the time properly in English

Telling the time in English is more complicated than just reading some numbers from the clock. We have lots of expressions and phrases related to telling the time that you need to know if you want to talk about time accurately in English. Make sure you can tell the time properly in English with these five simple tips.

Choose which clock to use

There are two ways of telling the time in English – the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock. In the 24-hour clock, we use the numbers from 0 – 23 to indicate the hours. In the 12-hour clock, we use 1 – 12. To tell the difference between morning and afternoon, we use ‘am’ after the time in the morning and ‘pm’ after the time in the afternoon. Remember, ‘pm’ starts at 12:00 near lunchtime.

Only use o’clock up to 12

We only use ‘o’clock’ for precise hours. You can say ‘eight o’clock’ at 08:00 but not at 08:01. We only use ‘o’clock’ when we are telling time using the 12-hour clock so English speakers would never say ’13 o’clock’.

We only have a ‘half past, never a ‘half to’.

Unlike many other languages, in English we use ‘half past’ to talk about any time ending in ‘:30’. After that we start looking forward and use ‘to’. So, 6:30 is ‘half past six’ and 6:31 is 29 minutes to seven. We also only use ‘half past’ with the 12-hour clock.

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Use ‘quarter’ for 15 minutes before or after the hour

At X:15 and X:45, we can use the expressions ‘quarter past’ and ‘quarter to’. Using these expressions sounds much more natural to a native speaker than ‘fifteen minutes past’ or ‘fifteen minutes to’. As with ‘half past’ we can only use these with the 12-hour clock.

Use ‘at’ for specific times and ‘in’ for periods of time

We use ‘at’ to talk about any specific time. For example “I’ll meet you at six pm.” Special specific times of the day and night have their own names in English, we use ‘at’ with these, to. ‘Midday’, ‘midnight’, ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’ all need ‘at’ before them. However, if we are talking about a period of the day, we use ‘in’. So, we would say “in the morning”, “in the afternoon”, “in the evening”, or “in the night”. There is one exception to this rule in that we can also say “at night”.

So the next time you look at your watch, think about how to say what the time is in English and if you get stuck, use these tips to help you.