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I often go to bed at 10 pm and wake up at 6 or 7am.

One day, I was sleeping when the phone rang at 11:30pm: Can I say the phone rang in the middle of the night in this case?

If not, then

Can I say "I was sleeping when the phone rang at the beginning of the night" when the phone rang at 11:30pm or 12am or even 12:30am?

Can I say "I was sleeping when the phone rang at the end of the night (or at the beginning of the morning)" when the phone rang at 5am, 5:30am, 6am, 6:30am?

When can I say the phone rang in the middle of the night?

For example, "when it rang at 12 am, 12:30am, 1am, 2am, 3am, 4am, 5 am, 6am"?

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    If it wakes me up, I would say "in the middle of the night" without hesitation, no matter what time I found out it was later.
    – Wastrel
    Dec 19, 2022 at 14:53
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    @Wastrel I definitely wouldn’t. “In the middle of the night” still has to be at night – being woken up is not enough. I would consider 11:30 PM to be a stretch, regardless of when I went to bed. And as someone who has worked many night shifts and then gone to bed and slept from 9 AM till 4 PM, I would think it absolutely preposterous to say someone called me in the middle of the night if they called and woke me up at 1 in the afternoon. Dec 19, 2022 at 18:59
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    @Janus Bell I wasn't thinking about people who sleep during the day, obviously. But as someone who is always sleeping at 11:30 PM, yes, that's the middle of the night for me. I am never pleased when I am awakened, and I would tell anyone who woke me up then not to call me in the middle of the night. I probably would not be nice about it.
    – Wastrel
    Dec 20, 2022 at 14:11

6 Answers 6

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"In the middle of the night" doesn't have any fixed definition, but usually applies to times when you wouldn't expect anybody to be awake, so I'd say very roughly between 2 and 5 am.

The expression is also relative, so if you're an early riser, then someone phoning you at midnight is "in the middle of the night", even if teenagers are still awake.

There's no idiomatic equivalent expression with the "beginning/end" of the night/morning if you're asleep. To express those times, you'd have to say something like, "soon after I went to bed", "just before I usually wake up", "in the early morning", or "in the late morning".

The "beginning/end" of the night would refer to something like the beginning or end of a night out clubbing, or a night shift at work, or some other situation where you're awake all night and can perceive the beginning or end.

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  • There is "first thing in the morning", which (depending on context) can mean "as soon as I wake up", "as soon as I am nominally functional", or "immediately upon starting my workday".
    – Hellion
    Dec 21, 2022 at 15:18
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If the time is between 10pm and 1 am, the adverb late is appropriate.

  1. I was sleeping when the phone rang late at night

If you want to say the telephone rang between 1 am and 4 am you can also say

  1. I was sleeping when the phone rang in the small hours of the morning
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"Night" is the time of darkness. There is really no more precise definition in common usage. It's not really "night" if the sun is up.

So if it's dark from, for example, 8 pm to 6 am, then the exact "middle of the night" is 1 am (10 hours of darkness, 5 hours after 8 pm is 1 am).

Because "middle of the night" is not a precise time, some would say that only after midnight is "late", and therefore "middle of the night" is between midnight and dawn.

It's perfectly understandable for you to say about a call at midnight:

The phone rang around midnight.

The phone rang in the middle of the night.

The phone rang late last night.

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    No, "night" doesn't align perfectly with the hours of darkness in most cultures. For example, it's now December, which means that where I live gets light between 8 and 9 am and gets dark between 3 and 4 pm; I wouldn't refer to either 7 am or 5 pm as "in the night". Similarly in the summertime, when the sun doesn't get far enough below the horizon to get properly dark, we still think of ourselves as going to bed at night. Dec 19, 2022 at 16:59
  • To further Toby’s point, people who live north of the Polar Circle have have two very distinct types of ‘night’: there’s the Polar Night, which can last up to several months in winter; and the daily recurring ‘nighttime’, which is when most people go to bed and sleep. If the phone rings at 1 PM, it’s not the middle of the night, even if the sun isn’t up. Conversely, in summer, the Sun may not set completely for several months, but if the phone rings at 2 AM, it still rings in the middle of the night, even though the sun is still up. Dec 19, 2022 at 19:05
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As @gotube says (and I upvoted his answer), there is no strict definition of "middle of the night".

I think most people would agree that a time in the early AM is "middle of the night", like 1 AM to 5 AM.

If you referred to a time somewhat outside that, like midnight or 6 AM, as "middle of the night", few would question that or find it surprising.

11:00 pm? Probably not. Just because you're in bed and asleep doesn't make it "the middle of the night". If you go to sleep early -- whether regularly or just on one particular occasion -- say at 9:00 pm, that would certainly not make 9:30 "the middle of the night". Likewise if you sleep late. Like last Saturday I didn't get up until after 10:00 am. I wouldn't therefore call 9:00 am "the middle of the night".

If you want to express the idea that someone called while you were asleep, you can simply say, "They called while I was asleep". If you had gone to bed particularly early that day or were sleeping particularly late, you might need to clarify, "I go to bed early because ..." etc.

I've never heard a fluent speaker say "the beginning of the night" or "the end of the night". I guess people would know what you meant but it's just not something people say. You could say "early in the night". For the other end you'd probably say "in the very early morning".

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gotube has given a good answer; let me just stress that the term "in the middle of the night" is highly subjective: It simply means the time at night when the speaker is sound asleep. A few hours after going to bed, and a few hours before getting up. A teenager may consider 5.30 AM in the middle of the night because he has only been asleep for 3 hours, while his grandma who goes to bed at 9 PM is regularly having breakfast at that hour so that for her it is clearly morning.

Similar considerations apply to "late night": the hours before going to bed; and "early morning": the hours around getting up, perhaps even getting up on the early side. Specifically the time when some "regular people" are already awake; and "very early morning", or "the wee hours": Anything past midnight until early morning.

Of course we can use an average citizen as a yardstick to determine typical values for this: Gets up at 7 AM, goes to bed at 11 PM. Early morning starts perhaps at 5.30 AM, late night runs from 10 PM to midnight, and the middle of the night would be between 1 AM and 4 or 4.30 AM. Give or take.

The terms are also somewhat context dependent: In southern or northern latitudes dawn may start at 4 AM in summer which makes it easier to call that time "morning" — but not in winter! "Early morning" in a police report could also be 3 AM while "I went for an early morning run" would not be that early.

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We all need to do our part to eliminate discrimination, both from our lives, and from our vernacular. The former requires the latter.

The easy and correct way to do so is to take the words we speak literally.

“Middle” of the night means, mathematically, the time that is in the middle of the night.

“Night” is defined as the time between sunset and sunrise, which is typically 12 hours long.

Half of 12, or the middle of 12, is 6. So, 6 hours after sunset is the middle of the night, which is also 6 hours before sunrise, confirming our math that this time is indeed the middle.

Although the exact times vary with planetary revolutions, to appease many peoples’ need for number labels to times of day, the middle of the night still remains the mathematical middle, which is 12:00am because, sunrise is around 6am, & sunset is around 6pm; so, the middle of those two times is 12am.

Before the middle (6pm-11:59pm) is the beginning of the night.

After the middle (12:01am-5:59am), it becomes the end of the night.

In summary:

Each part of a day, day and night, has a beginning, middle, & end.

6am-11:59am = morning/beginning of day

12:00pm = noon/middle of day

12:01pm-5:59pm = afternoon/end of day

6pm-11:59pm = night/beginning of night

12:00am = midnight/middle of night

12:01am-5:59am = late night/end of night

Your personal sleep schedule does not alter these definitions. The world does not revolve around you and your personal sleep schedule. Other circadian rhythms exist, and disregarding them is a discriminatory act of bigotry.

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