I have checked the dictionary, "on the clock" means :

1) Working or getting paid

2) Of a taxi (and by extension, its driver), currently engaged to carry a passenger and having an active meter.

3) Currently displayed on a motor vehicle's speedometer or odometer .

I'm not sure which explanation fits the context best; seems to me "working" is a choice?

In the context, I feel like when Tony said " “We’re on the clock.” , he means "We don't have enough time/ the clock is ticking/ it's urgent".

Could anyone help me to understand what exactly did Tony want to express here: working or urgent? or something else?

Here is the sentence in the context:

“Shut it down, Dr. Selvig,” Tony said. He hovered near the machine, hoping Selvig wouldn’t notice the way his thrusters were hiccupping. He was having trouble maintaining consistent thrust.

“It’s too late!” Selvig cried. “She can’t be stopped now! She wants to show us something! A new universe.”

“Okay,” Tony said. Clearly Selvig was beyond reason.

Tony blasted the machine with his repulsors, but it was surrounded by a force field of some kind. The reflected energy knocked him back and also sent Selvig and his computer flying across the rooftop.

“The barrier is pure energy,” Jarvis said. “It’s unbreakable.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Tony said. “Plan B.” He saw Loki on the walkway that led from the landing pad into the penthouse.

“Sir, the Mark Seven is not ready for deployment,” Jarvis said.

“Then skip the bells and whistles,” Tony said. “We’re on the clock.” He sure couldn’t take on Loki and the Chitauri, whatever they were, in the suit he was wearing. It was barely hanging together.

The Avengers I

  • Cross site dupe: english.stackexchange.com/questions/63948/…
    – CinCout
    Apr 12, 2019 at 9:39
  • @ CinCout,thanks for the quote. I remember that scene in the FRIENDS vividly. The difference between "on a clock" and "on the clock" is exactly what bothers me here in the avengers. Because I feel like Tony's situation is urgent and he's kind of asking Jarvis to hurry plan b. I don't get Tony's point of "on the clock"––'working'. Was Tony trying to be funny? making a joke or something?
    – user86301
    Apr 12, 2019 at 10:00
  • Perhaps "On the clock" is a chess reference, meaning that the clock is running, and there's not much time left. Also, I'm an American, and I've never heard the phrase "on a clock" before Feb 13, 2020 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


You are correct. This is a variation of meaning number one.

Wiktionary has some definitions that help:

on the clock [prepositional phrase]

  • (sports) In the official time remaining in a game or other sporting event.

    With only three seconds on the clock and the Knicks about to win, 102-96, in their playoff opener against the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden last night, Rick Pitino enjoyed the moment. [1989, Dave Anderson, "Sports of the Times: Jackson Hits 'Biggest Shot Of My Life'," New York Times, 28 April (retrieved 20 Apr. 2009)]

  • (chiefly sports drafts) Under scrutiny due to having to make a decision or produce results within a set period of time.

  • Remunerated per unit of time.

The passage is saying that there is an extreme time pressure to complete something.

People speak about being "on the clock" when they work at a job where you "punch in and punch out" on a time clock. Such jobs often create tangible results (like in a factory) in a set amount of time, and the speaker is saying they need to produce tangible results.

In this case, the reward may not be a paycheck -- it's whatever the Avengers characters are trying to do.

  • thanks for the explanation:) Can I understand it in this way: Tony means "we are working––kind of in the middle of saving the world"? AND, he didn't mean "on a clock", right?
    – user86301
    Apr 12, 2019 at 10:03
  • Yes, absolutely. You could also say the Avengers are under time pressure to save the world. Apr 12, 2019 at 10:05
  • 3
    @user86301 No, it only means that there is time pressure. Interpreting it as working (in the sense of getting paid) is beside the point. It would be said just as easily if he were relaxing and playing a game, but trying to beat a high score before the clock ran out. Apr 12, 2019 at 13:11
  • @Jason Bassford, then it's really confusing for me, back to where I was. can I understand it in this way: "on the clock", meaning "the remains time (of a sport)", which leads to the implication in this context as "time pressure- don't have much time left"? but according to CinCout, and the cross site he quoted above(see the comment above), "on the clock" is not the same as " on a clock", the later means "don't have much time left.
    – user86301
    Apr 12, 2019 at 14:40
  • 5
    @user86301 The phrase has multiple meanings. What it means in any particular case is based on context, In the context of the scene in The Avengers, it just means that Tony doesn't have time to sit around, worrying about bells and whistles. The actual article used (the clock or a clock) is mostly irrelevant in general, and it wouldn't have made any difference in this case if Tony had said we're on a clock instead. Apr 12, 2019 at 14:50

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