Vocabulary in English

Different Ways to Ask and Tell the Time in English

Different Ways to Ask and Tell the Time in English

You’re about to learn different ways to tell the time and how to ask for the time in English. You might also like Numbers in English: The Ultimate Guide.

You think you can tell the time in English.

And you can, right?

I mean, you learned all this stuff way back in Elementary.

But then you ask someone what the time is in English.

And you have no idea what he said.

That’s because there are loads of different ways to tell the time (and ask for the time) in English.

Not just the ones we learned back in Elementary.

So let’s check them out.

Free test - Gymglish with Clark and Miller

How to tell the time in English

The basics

OK. Let’s start with the basics.

Here’s a clock:

A simple sketch of a clock face with no numbers
OK, I probably should’ve made that logo a bit smaller.

The two things on the clock (red and green in the image above) are called the hands.

The red one is called the big hand, and the little one is called the little hand.

(Or, if you don’t want to sound childish, you can call them the minute hand and the hour hand. But I choose to sound childish.)

Anyway. Here’s how English speakers look at the minutes:

A clock face with "quarter," "half" and the minutes "to" and "past" the hour
Yeah, definitely should’ve been smaller.

And here’s how English speakers look at the hours:

A simple sketch of a clock face with numbers
Massive, isn’t it?

And here’s how we look at the clock when we just want to tell the time:

A clock face showing the areas for "to" and "past"

And when you know the formula is simply red-blue-green, then it’s easy!

A clock face showing the order of words for telling the time (five to ten)

A clock face showing the order of words for telling the time (quarter past six)

A clock face showing the order of words for telling the time (twenty-five to twelve)

If you like, you can also go digital.

In that case, you just say what you see:

A digital clock showing five thirty-four

One thing to be careful of: if the minutes are between 1 and 9 (like 05 or 07 or 02), we usually say “oh” first:

A digital clock showing eight oh-eight

Easy, right? But this isn’t how everyone tells the time.

Depending on where you go in the world, you might hear people telling the time in different ways.

So let’s take a look at some alternatives.

How to say the time less precisely

When someone asks you the time, it’s usually some awkward time like “7 past 12” or “11 to 1.”

But it’s a bit weird to be that exact when we’re telling someone the time. I mean, do they really need to know the time to the minute?

So we approximate — we give them a more general idea of what time it is, usually relating to one of the red parts on the clock:

A clock face with "quarter," "half" and the minutes "to" and "past" the hour

So if it’s 08:32, you can say “just after” or “just gone”:

Just gone half past 8
Just after half past 8

If it’s 08:04, you can say “almost,” “nearly” or “coming up to”:

Coming up to five past eight
Almost five past eight
Nearly five past eight

Sound natural by dropping the hour

Most of the time, we have a good idea about what kind of time it is.

I mean, we know it’s probably some time between 2 and 3.

So when we ask the time, we’re just asking for something a little more exact.

That means that sometimes, when we tell someone the time, we don’t bother saying the hour.

That’s right. We just stop.

What time is it? We should be landing soon, right? Erm... You're right. It's 25 past already!

Some more examples:

“It’s quarter to.”
“It’s nearly half past.”

If it’s something “o’clock,” we can just drop the “o’clock” part:

So “three o’clock” can become just “three.” (Yeah, I know — just answering “three” can sound a bit weird. But some people definitely do it. So watch out!)

Half twelve

This one confuses the Germans, the Australians, the Americans and everyone except the Brits, who use it all the time. So if you’re going to be spending time with anyone from the UK, this is worth knowing.

Basically, when we’re saying “half past” something, we simply drop the “past.”

So “half past one” becomes “half one.”

“Half past eleven” becomes “half eleven.”

You get the idea, right?

This is especially confusing for German speakers because they use the same formula, but it means something different. (“Half one” actually means “half past twelve,” and “half eleven” means “half ten.” Confusing!)

Twelve-ish

Ah, yes! The “-ish.”

This is a really useful suffix.

When we add “-ish” to an adjective, it means “more or less” or “not exactly, but close enough.”

How is he? Well ... goodish, I suppose.

In very informal situations, we can even use the suffix as a word and just say “ish” as an answer:

Interesting film? Eh ... ish.

But we also use this a lot when we want to talk about the time.

Usually it’s for one of the “o’clocks”:

So “Pick you up at about 8 o’clock, yeah?” becomes “Pick you up at eight-ish, yeah?”

Sometimes we can use it for the other parts of the hour:

“OK. Let’s meet here at half past three-ish.”

Or

“I think he left here at quarter to-ish.”

There’s also one of my favourite jokes.

“What time does Sean Connery arrive at Wimbledon?”
“Tennish.”

(Did you get it? Let me know why it’s funny in the comments.)

How to say 24-hour time in English

OK. There’s something that some people like to do.

They like to talk in 24-hour time.

It’s how people in the army talk, but sometimes you get people who kind of love army stuff talking like this.

So it’s worth knowing. Just in case you run into one of those people.

How to say it?

You add “hundred hours” when the time is an “o’clock” time.

So “10 o’clock” becomes “ten-hundred hours” or “twenty-two hundred hours.”

If it’s before 10, you add “oh” at the beginning.

So “8 o’clock” becomes “oh-eight-hundred hours” (or “twenty-hundred hours” if it’s in the evening).

For all other times, just say it digitally.

So “five past nine” becomes “nine oh five” or “twenty-one oh five.”

And “quarter to four” becomes “three forty-five” or “fifteen forty-five.”

If you want to talk like this, then of course, that’s fine.

But just never mix 12-hour style with 24-hour style:

So never say “twelve past twenty.” (It’s “twelve past eight” or “twenty twelve.”)

Of course, this twenty-four hour thing is really useful when we’re not sure whether we’re talking about the morning, afternoon or evening.

But there’s another solution to that.

Just say “in the morning,” “in the afternoon” or “in the evening,” or if you prefer, “a.m.” (for 00:00 – 11:59) or “p.m.” (12:00 – 23:59).

What about 12:00 and 00:00?

This one’s easy.

00:00 is the middle of the night, right?

So we say “midnight.”

And 12:00 is the middle of the day, isn’t it?

So we say “midday” or if you prefer, “noon.”

We can mix these with the minutes, too:

12:15 can be “quarter past midday.”

And 23:40 can be “twenty to midnight” (which sounds kind of … scary?).

How to ask for the time in English

OK. So you probably usually ask the time with either (or both) of these classic phrases:

“What time is it?”
“What’s the time?”

Which is fine. This is how a lot of people ask the time.

But don’t be surprised if you hear something like this when someone asks for the time:

“You got the time, mate?”
“Have you got the time on you?”
“Excuse me, can I get the time?”

Or, if you’re with a group of people, you might ask:

“What time have we got?”


Great work! You made it this far.

So now you need to go out there and start telling people the time in all these interesting and fabulous ways.

But before you do, you need some practice.

So let’s practise!

  1. What time is it RIGHT NOW?
  2. When did you get home yesterday?
  3. What time do you usually have lunch?
  4. What time was it when you started reading this post?

Answer in the comments!

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12 thoughts on “Different Ways to Ask and Tell the Time in English

  1. 1. It’s two minutes past three.
    2. I got home yestreday at quarter to eight.
    3. Nice question. The time when I can have a lunch may be chosen from 1 p.m to 3 p.m, I take decision about it myself. But it’s just tea and cookies.
    4. I started reading this post about thirty minutes ago. Commenting has taken the greatest part of it.

    I must notice that most of time descriptions in English are very common to Russian. But of course there are its own peculiarities:
    1. Big and small “hands” — we call them “arrows”.
    2. “Half past eleven” becomes “half to twelve”. If i get it right — just like in Germany.
    3. 08:04 is very often described as “the beginning of nineth (hour)”, 08:15 — “quarter of nineth” and you unlikely hear something like “quarter past eight” (I even don’t have an idea how the Russian equivalent may sound). You’ll likely hear “eight-fifteen”.
    4. “Military” style is quite wide spread because of its accuracy (and abundance of cheap cellular phones with digital watches 🙂 ).

    1. Good stuff! Although, is tea and cookies enough for lunch? 🙂

      As for the comparisons with Russian English, these are really fascinating.
      1. I like it. It almost makes more sense.
      2. Almost like Germany (except that they don’t say “to”).
      3. This is completely alien concept to me. It feels very confusing and poetic at the same time.
      4. Yes. This is true. 🙂

      1. >>Good stuff! Although, is tea and cookies enough for lunch? 🙂
        Well, I’ve been having such schedule of working day for the last five years and I’m still alive 🙂

  2. Hey there,
    there was a question about your favourite joke in the case of time, namely, what the essence of this gag is.
    “What time does Sean Connery arrive at Wimbledon?”
    “Tennish.”
    The point is the double entendre (that has got two meanings). One is the exact answer to the original request: what time deos S. C. arrive…? – The reaction is at about ten. The other refers to the indirect annual action at Wimbledon, as we well know it is one part of the annual tennis grand slam cup. And it sounds a bit weird as when someone whose speech defect and that’s why can’t correctly pronounce the word ‘tennis’ with ‘s’ at the end, so who stridently articulates it as an ‘sh’ sound.

    1. You got it! And you explained it with such vibrant articulation!

      Also, the fact that Sean Connery has that particular speech feature (I wouldn’t call it an impediment — he didn’t have it in his early career), makes it more funny.

      Here’s another.

      Q: Does Sean Connery like herbs?
      A: Only partially.

  3. Interesting! In Russian we always say half ten (9.30) or half one (12.30) just as you guys do! And we use 24 hour time a lot!
    .

    1. Hi Aksana.

      Thanks for the comment. But be careful with the “half” thing — When we say “half ten,” it’s 10:30. “Half one” is 13:30. I think the Russian is more like the German, not the English.

      But yeah — 24-hour time is definitely useful.

  4. Hi Gabriel,

    Thanks for amazing time learning article. But would u mind explaining these two verbs I didn’t get them :-

    “It’s quarter to.”
    “It’s nearly half past.”

    Thanks

    1. Hi Rashmi,

      Thanks for the positive feedback and I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

      To answer your questions.

      When we know what kind of time it is — when we know it’s some time after 4 and before 5, for example — we don’t need to say the hour when we talk about the time. That’s because the context makes it clear.

      So instead of “half past 4,” we can just say “half past.”

      Instead of “quarter to 5,” we can just say “quarter to.”

      Hope that helps!

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