This sentence "Last night at 9 PM, I ate dinner" means that the action began at 9 or finished at 9?

Does it mean that I started eating at 9?

  • 4
    It refers to start time of dinner, according to me. – suchiindia Dec 4 '15 at 7:37
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    You don't eat dinner, you have it! – Maulik V Dec 4 '15 at 8:18
  • I'd say it's none of the above. For me it sounds like you were easting at exactly 9, in other words, at 9 you were putting food in your mouth, probably with a fork – sch Dec 4 '15 at 13:01
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    @MaulikV It's perfectly fine to either eat dinner or have it. – Karen Dec 4 '15 at 13:59
  • yes, dinner is something you eat. not sure why one would think "i ate dinner" is unacceptable. it's extremely common, as is "i had dinner". – user428517 Dec 4 '15 at 20:42

The use of the preposition at specifies a certain point in time. Since a meal cannot be eaten in/over/during a point of time, the most common way to interpret your sentence

Last night at 9 PM, I ate dinner

is that you are telling at what point in time that dinner started.

I cannot stress the following enough:

It would be rare to non-existent for a native speaker to utter your sentence and refer to 9 PM as the stopping point.

We often say sentences like yours (using at a specific time) to refer to the starting time of a meal or other event. This is probably so that other people know what time to arrive at the meal or event.

This includes both the past and non-past. Examples with at in addition to your sentence include

1 Lunch was at 3 yesterday.
2 We had breakfast at 6.
3 They would always eat at noon.

All the above refer to the start time.

4 Dinner is at 7 tonight.
5 I always eat lunch at 1 pm.
6 At midnight I like to have snack.

Again, the above refer to a point in time, and that point in time is the start time.

To indicate the stopping point with at, you would usually need to make it clear:

7 Last night I finished my dinner at 9pm.
8 Lunch is over at 12:30. Then you return to class.

Note: This answers the question you have actually asked. Note that the speaker of the sentence could have "rounded off" a close time (say 9:05pm) to 9pm, but this does not affect anything about the meaning of the actual sentence the speaker says, using at. It only means the speaker was not precise in giving the time.

Changing the prepositional phrase to around 9pm changes the meaning of the sentence to 9pm plus or minus about 15 minutes. But you did not ask about around 9pm.

As a side issue, it is not necessary to say PM when you specify last night since PM includes the hour of nine at night.

  • 7
    I'd also assume it gave the time you started dinner. As noted in the comments to Catija's answer the "9" might have been rounded, but it would still mean "I started eating at 9 [or thereabouts]". If you wanted to indicate you were in the middle of dinner, I'd have said "Last night at 9 PM, I was eating dinner". – TripeHound Dec 4 '15 at 13:17
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    It's also possible that your "dinner" consisted of a snack that only took you under a minute to eat, so in that case it would both start and end at 9. (Well, 9:00:5x if you want to get technical - people don't generally count the seconds in statements like that.) I'd still say that some approximation is allowed - not 15 minutes as Catija's answer suggests, but it could easily be up to 5 minutes before or after 9 and still be considered "9 PM". – Darrel Hoffman Dec 4 '15 at 14:47
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    I think this answer would have received a lot of downvotes in EL&U because you are giving your primarily opinion-based reply. You never know whether it is a starting time or finishing time or even a time in the middle of dinner. As commented below, you could say you started dinner at 9 even though you started at 8:45 or even 8:30. If you hear people say "I got up at 6", does it mean the time you opened your eyes, you get out of bed, or you start to wash your face? Nobody knows. I downvote your answer and upvote the other which is more objective. – user24743 Dec 4 '15 at 16:41
  • @Rathony you should refrain yourself from commenting with superfluous words. You downvote, it's fine but don't give your judgement on the answer's credibility is posted elsewhere. An ideal way is -downvote an answer, and give grammatical reply though the latter one is optional. – Maulik V Dec 5 '15 at 4:57
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    I recommend re-reading my comment! What is not superfluous in "I think this answer would have received a lot ...." And who said they should downvote and reply elsewhere? I said Rathony should not justify answer's credibility by saying 'would have got a lot of downvotes in ELU'. @PLL – Maulik V Dec 5 '15 at 10:21

As a native speaker, I'd argue that the statement is generic enough to say that the answer is "all of the above".

What this is realistically saying is "Last night, around 9 PM, I ate dinner." - meaning that they could have:

  • started eating at 8:45 and finished at 9...
  • started at 9 and finished at 9:15...
  • started at 8:45 and finished at 9:15...
  • started eating at 9:15 and ended at 9:30.

There's no real way to know which is "correct" and if the person phrased it this way, it probably doesn't really matter. All they're saying is that, some time during the hour from 9-10 pm, they ate dinner.

If someone wanted to be explicit they would say something more specific like:

I worked so late last night that I didn't sit down to dinner until 9 pm.
There was so much food at the feast that I didn't finish eating dinner until 9 pm!

In these examples, you can clearly see that the action is beginning or ending at 9 pm, respectively.

  • 2
    @NES The point is that when someone says the phrase in the question, it's completely ambiguous what is meant... which is why I changed the preposition, if that's how you want to look at it. I'm talking about actual use, not pure definitions. – Catija Dec 4 '15 at 0:07
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    As another native speaker (UK) if you told me you had dinner at 9 pm I wouldn't find it at all ambiguous, you started eating at 9pm. It's unlikely to be a problem in this context if you meant around 9 rather than at, but as written in the OP it clearly means started at 9. – Joseph Rogers Dec 4 '15 at 6:15
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    @Jim people round up/down all the time. If I'm talking to a colleague at work and say "I worked so late last night I didn't get to eat dinner until 9pm," I'm speaking in general terms. If I really ate at 8:45 or 9:15, nobody cares. The "around" can be implied, because not everyone treats every claim as something that must be perfectly backed up. If you were telling the police your whereabouts as they questioned you, omitting the "around" might be a bigger deal. – Zach Lipton Dec 4 '15 at 6:32
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    @NES I think this depends a lot on context. If I'm telling someone when dinner is going to be I am sure to use at to mean the (earliest time) when it will start, because that's the information they need. If I'm being asked by a cop when I ate dinner yesterday I'm sure to use around since I don't usually check the clock when I sit down to dinner. Best I can do will be a time window of roughly 15-30 minutes. If I'm talking with a colleague about when I tend to have dinner I'd probably use at and would round to the closest hour, since noone cares about 5 minutes one way or the other. – DRF Dec 4 '15 at 6:58
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    @Jim I would not hear “9 pm” in a sentence like this as being all that precise. I would accept that sentence as accurate even if the dinner itself was eaten entirely between 8:45 and 8:55, because it’s close enough to 9 pm for this purpose. Similarly, “we’ll leave at 11” can easily mean not actually getting out the door until 11:15, 11:30. In casual conversation those times just don’t offer much precision. – KRyan Dec 4 '15 at 16:31

Last night at 9PM, I ate dinner.


Last night at 9PM, I finished eating dinner.


Last night at 9PM, I had eaten dinner.

End or later.

Last night at 9PM, I was eating dinner.

Some time during the dinner.

Last night at 9PM, I had been eating dinner.

Some time during the dinner when an interruption occurs.


I think it's safe to say that telicity is involved here.

[On the other hand I don't think the use of light verbs (e.g., have for eat) matters in this case.]

Compare the following sentences:

*I conquered Elbonia for three days.

I conquered Elbonia in three days.

Eating or to eat is not a necessarily complete act.

Eating a meal or to eat a meal is necessarily a complete act. Otherwise you would only be eating part of the meal.

Notice that we would have to switch to a continuous or progressive description (or change the tense entirely) in order to be able to indicate anything other than the time at which the meal occurred.

I was eating around nine o'clock.

However we are considering the entire, complete act. In some sense it isn't relevant when it begins and ends--precisely because it is complete and self-contained. Thus it is unnecessary to force the beginning alone to be aligned with the time mentioned.

I ate at nine.

I did eat at nine.

These statements include all the information we need to understand the time of occurrence because they force us to consider the meal as an event taking place at a specific time.


I think this sentence has an uncertainty which shows the person might have started his dinner somewhere around 9 PM, so he is not sure but he somehow manages to remember time while he was having dinner or after finishing his dinner.


Interesting sentence. It's the answer that I would give if I was asked "what did you do yesterday at precisely 9 PM?". In that case the answer would mean "At precisely 9 PM, I was eating. So most likely I started before 9 PM and finished after 9 PM, unless I took my very first or very last bite at exactly 9 PM".

On the other hand, if I said "at 8 PM, I came home from work. At 8:30 I had a shower, and at 9 PM I had dinner" - then it would mean that the shower started at 8:30, and the dinner started at 9 PM. It all depends on the context.

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