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Am I telling the time correctly?

It's two past one (1:02)

It's five past one (1:05)

It's a quarter past one. (1:15)

It's twenty past one. (1:20)

It's twenty-five past one. (1:25)

It's twenty-six past one (1:26)

It's half past one (1:30)

It's twenty-six to ten. (9:34)

It's a quarter to ten. (9:45)

It's one to ten. (9:59)

I'm just reading The Grammar Guide by Coutlée, Joannette and Anita Romano (It doesn't provide much detail) and this article https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/time?q=Time%3A+seconds%2C+minutes%2C+hours%2C+years

The question is about the analog clock. I just put the digital format (numbers) on the side to accurately indicate the time I'm trying to tell.

Thank you!

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  • 38
    Note that the type of clock doesn't determine how you speak the time. It is correct to look at an analog clock and say "It's nine forty-five" just as it is correct to look at a digital clock and say "It's a quarter to ten"
    – James K
    May 8, 2023 at 17:14
  • 6
    @JamesK Thanks for the comment. I did not know that. I thought there was a different way of telling time according to the type of clock because the teaching materials I read tend to present the reading of each type of clock differently. I believe your comment adds important information for non-native English learners.
    – neko777
    May 8, 2023 at 18:11
  • 14
    At least in British English around London, it seems to be OK to omit the "past" with "half". Which is very confusing to Germans. I learned that the hard way when our (German) company invited a (British) speaker who said "We'll continue at half one", everybody grumbled about the short lunch break, everybody showed up at 12:30, except the speaker, who arrived at 1:30. May 9, 2023 at 7:18
  • 6
    One minor point here - especially when dealing with the time from an analogue clock you will tend to round up or down the time, often to the nearest five or ten minutes. So, one wouldn't say 'it's two past one' but could say 'it's one [o'clock]' or 'it's just gone one [o'clock]' in my dialect (Southern British English). I think from the opposite side I'd say 'almost' as in 'It's twenty-six past one' would be 'it's almost half (past) one'. This is less common with a digital clock where its easier to just read the number than rounding it. May 9, 2023 at 7:30
  • 22
    "It's twenty-six to ten. (9:34)" This is 'correct', but I don't think any English speaker would say it. I would say either "It's nine-thirty" (rounding) or "It's nine-thirty-four"
    – DJMcMayhem
    May 9, 2023 at 15:47

9 Answers 9

25

Those are nearly right, but when it's not a multiple of 5 minutes we almost always say the word "minute(s)".

So:

It's two minutes past one.

It's twenty-six minutes past one.

It's twenty-six minutes to ten.

It's one minute to ten.

We can say minutes when it's five/ten/twenty/twenty-five, but we often don't. But we almost always do for other numbers of minutes - even for "fifteen", if we say that:

It's a quarter past one. (most common)

It's fifteen minutes past one. (acceptable, usually when we are being exact about the number of minutes)

It's fifteen past one. (Unusual).

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22

As a native Londoner, here is what I am most likely to say (and hear) at those times (given below in 24 hour format):

1302: "Two minutes past one." "It's just gone one."

1305: "Five past one."

1315: "Quarter past one."

1320: "It's twenty past." If the hour can be inferred, it's often dropped. If people are asking because they need to catch a train at a particular time, or waiting for a meeting to start, the assumption is they're asking about the minutes, rather than the hour.

1325: "It's twenty-five past (one)."

1326: "It's just gone twenty-five past (one)." Unless it's a circumstance where the listener needs the exact time, we're likely to approximate to the nearest 5 minutes. 1326, 1327: "about twenty five past". 1328-1329: "nearly half past"

1329: "It's nearly half-past (one)."

1330: "It's half past one on the dot." "It's half one exactly."

0934: "It's nearly twenty five to (ten)." Anything other than the 5 minute increments of 25,20,15,10,5 feel strange to say. "It's twenty-six to ten." would be very rare to hear, much more likely to be exact for that and say "It's nine thirty-four."

0945: "It's quarter to ten." We drop the "a" from "It's a quarter to ten." "Quarter to" and "quarter past" feel like their own times.

0959: "It's nearly ten (o'clock)."

Someone reading a digital clock will likely tell you the reading, but with analogue clocks, conversationally, you are likely to get these more vague, conversational answers.

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  • 2
    Just to throw a little variety into the mix, another way of expressing x:25 or x:35 is to say "it's five-and-twenty past/to x/y" - I picked this up from my father and grandfather and can say with confidence that it was fairly common in East London and the South East of England, but I don't hear it so much these days. EDIT: Have a plus one for "on the dot" - that should be used as often as possible :-)
    – Spratty
    May 10, 2023 at 9:24
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    @Spratty my mother, born Camberwell, south London, in 1920, and her family used to say that. Also 'two o'clock sharp' meaning exactly that time. May 10, 2023 at 13:55
  • A colleague of mine in the 80s, who was probably in his forties at the time, used to say "five and twenty to one" and the like.
    – Colin Fine
    May 10, 2023 at 17:01
  • 1
    As another user of "British conventions", I broadly agree with that. I think it's worth adding that when clocks and watches with dials were dominant nobody really expected them to be /accurate/ to better than a minute or so so there was little point being more /precise/ with ones report of the time: hence "just gone one", "not quite five-past" and so on. May 11, 2023 at 8:29
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    @Spratty Isn't that just a case of "five-and-twenty" being an (old-fashioned) alternative to "twenty-five" in general, rather than something specific to telling the time? May 11, 2023 at 9:36
16

These are all grammatically correct.

Some of them sound unnatural. You would probably say "one oh two" not "two past one" and "one twenty six" rather than "twenty six past one", even when reading an analog clock. The former construction is customary for 10, 20, 40 and 50. For 1:30 you can say either "one thirty", "half past one".

"One to ten" sounds strange since it suggests counting. "One minute to ten" would be better, unless the context is absolutely clear and you really want to use the fewest possible words.

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    I think this depends on location. For example, I believe in the UK they're more likely to say "quarter past one" whereas in my experience in the US "one fifteen" is much more common. Perhaps a Brit can chime in.
    – nasch
    May 9, 2023 at 0:54
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    @nasch I think it may also be a generational thing. I'm in the US and I would frequently hear my dad and other people his age say "quarter till/past x". But I don't hear it much from people in my age group (late 30s) or younger. May 9, 2023 at 1:33
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    @CaveJohnson I can believe "one fifteen" is more common these days than :"quarter past one" but the latter still sounds right when "twenty six past one" does not. May 9, 2023 at 1:37
  • @EthanBolker Agreed. Maybe because it's not a round number (5/10/15/20/25)? May 9, 2023 at 1:48
  • @nasch "quarter past one" would certainly be common in Britain ("a quarter past one" much less so). Staying in the UK, "m past/to h" is restricted to multiples of 5. "m minutes past/to h" is acceptable for other numbers, but "h m" (e.g. "twelve fifty-seven") more common - this is the form used in public transport announcements, which is where such precision is most often required.
    – Chris H
    May 9, 2023 at 8:39
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Here's the perspective of a native West Coast American speaker - which I believe is, in this case, the same as the General American perspective.

All times, regardless of where you're reading them, are spoken as "[hour] [minute]", where [minute] is always spoken as a two-digit number. So, for minutes 10-59, the number is spoken normally ("ten", "fifty-nine", etc.) but for minutes 1-9, the number is spoken as "oh-one", "oh-nine", etc. Minute 0 is not pronounced, but in that case, we say "[hour] o'clock".

With that fairly simple set of rules, here's how we'd read those times:

  • 1:02 - one oh-two
  • 1:05 - one oh-five
  • 1:15 - one fifteen
  • 1:20 - one twenty
  • 1:25 - one twenty-five
  • 1:26 - one twenty-six
  • 1:30 - one thirty
  • 9:34 - nine thirty-four
  • 9:45 - nine forty-five
  • 9:59 - nine fifty-nine

If you're speaking to an American, use these forms. You don't need to worry about whether the past/to forms are correct, because the plain numeric forms are always correct.

That said, if you feel compelled to use past/to, don't make us do too much mental math. We're likely to try to convert the to number to the more common, numeric number, which makes "twenty-six to ten" sound ridiculous (the listener will say in their head, "wait...sixty minus twenty-six...")

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  • 1
    Is it mandatory to use the dash between "oh" and the minute? "oh-two"
    – neko777
    May 10, 2023 at 10:47
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    That's only for speaking, not for writing. We would never write "one oh two." We would write "1:02" May 10, 2023 at 14:36
  • I'm in the central US. I'll use "half past", "quarter after" and "ten till" but if the minutes aren't expressible with half, quarter, or ten then I always say what the numeric time actually is, as this answer shows.
    – SkySpiral7
    May 12, 2023 at 20:56
4

Just for the record, I'm putting in the actual answer to the question asked:

The type of clock does not determine how you speak the time.

As the OP explains to us,

" I just thought [elements such as "a quarter"] were specific to analogue watches, and then I saw they weren't."

1
  • That information is important, but I don't think the question was about the difference between analogue and digital clocks. My point was about the correct way to tell time using expressions like "a quarter", "past", "to", "half". I just thought those words were specific to analogue watches, and then I saw they weren't.
    – neko777
    May 10, 2023 at 14:26
3

Your audience matters a lot when choosing the method to speak times. As another answer already noted, Americans are quite familiar with just saying the time as you would read it on a digital clock ("ten thirty," "one fifteen," "two oh two"). This isn't the only method used here, but it's really common and is universally understood.

Where you can get into trouble is if you use certain British patterns that aren't used in the US when speaking to Americans. So, if you say it's "half six," many Americans will wonder whether that means 5:30 or 6:30. If you say it's "ten to six," then I might grumble about having to do subtraction in my head to work out that it's really 5:50, and I might wonder why you didn't just say "five fifty" and communicate clearly.

If your audience is British, then I'm unable to answer from that perspective.

One final consideration: Books that teach English times tend to only show one or two of a variety of ways, without any explanation that this is highly regional. The selection might be the author's preference, or it might be chosen to serve some other purpose, such as teaching the vocabulary of "half" and "quarter." At any rate, be aware that there are many ways to do this, and which way is best depends on who your audience is--or where they're from.

1

First and foremost, the type of clock does not dictate the way the time is read. A digital clock or digital watch is more likely to be ready by younger generations by simply reading off the numbers, but that has more to do with how younger generations tend to conceptualize time than it does with any linguistic rule.

As far as how to read off times:

  • Simply reading off the numbers will pretty much always be understood correctly irrespective of dialect (but see my comment at the end about 24-hour time).
  • X:15 can be read off as ‘quarter past X’ or ‘quarter after X’. X:30 can be read as ‘half past X’ or ‘half after X’. X:45 can be read as ‘quarter till X+1’ or ‘quarter to X+1’. These will almost always be properly understood irrespective of dialect, though the preferred form is often regionally dependent (for example, most Australian and British speakers I know prefer the ‘past’ form to the ‘after’).
  • If it’s only one or two minutes past an exact hour or quarter hour and the exact time is not relevant, then ‘just after X’, ‘just gone X’, or ‘just past X’ is sometimes used, though this is inexact and tends to be very region and dialect dependent (I hear these forms a lot from people I know in the UK or Australia, but only rarely from people around where I live in the US Midwest).
  • If the minutes are a multiple of five, similar forms are also generally considered acceptable in at least some dialects, and will usually be understood without issue. For example 1:10 as ‘ten after one’ or 5:40 as ‘twenty to five’. However, these forms are significantly less common than simply reading off the numbers, especially among younger speakers.
  • Otherwise, if the minutes are not a multiple of five, the standard is to just read off the numbers.

As a quick aside, 24-hour time is special in English. Most Americans who don’t have military background will, if confronted with 24-hour time, look at you like you just stepped out of a flying saucer, and I’ve seen similar responses from many English speakers outside of the US as well.

In the uncommon cases where 24-hour time is expected in spoken English, the only correct way to read a 24-hour clock is to just read off the numbers directly. In the much more common cases where 24-hour time is not expected, the norm is to mentally convert to 12-hour time and use the rules outlined above.

0

It's correct (for American English, anyway), but sounds very old-fashioned.

Nowadays, people are so used to reading the digits off a digital clock (on their mobile phone, if they don't have another clock), that the “analog” way of phrasing the time is dying out. Younger people will get confused if you say “it's a quarter past 11” instead of the expected “it's 11:15”. Many don't even know how to read an analog clock.

People who are reading the time from an analog clock may be more prone to round it (e.g., to the nearest 5 minutes) than to state the exact minute, but even then, the time is still always written and usually pronounced the “digital” way.

It may be helpful to know the traditional “{X (minutes) | quarter | half} {past | to | 'til} [hour]” convention for the sake of understanding older literature or song lyrics, but don't expect to ever use it in conversation.

0

For the sake of completeness, there's one other (possibly regional?) variant nobody has mentioned yet, which is to use the word "of" instead of "to" for times before the specified hour. e.g. you might hear:

  • 8:40 as "twenty of nine"
  • 8:45 as "quarter of nine"
  • 8:55 as "five of nine"

etc.

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