With any language you’re starting out with, it’s important to learn how to tell time, especially if the country you’re in uses a different time-telling system from the one you’re used to. This article will teach you how to tell time in English using the 12-hour system, as well as common greetings or sayings that correspond with different times of day!
In English, time is usually (and most easily) told by saying two numbers. The first number indicates the hour, while the second hour indicates the minute. For example:
- Two forty. (2:40)
- Eleven thirty. (11:30)
- Five twenty-five. (5:25)
- Nine thirteen. (9:13)
What’s not common is to say something like TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES, TWO AND FORTY, or FORTY AND TWO.
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How would you tell the following times using the “hour minute” formula?
- Eleven nineteen.
- Eight twenty-eight.
- Three thirteen.
If the time is exactly on the hour, simply say the number of the hour, followed by the phrase O’CLOCK. (pronounced OH CLOCK). Here are all the possibilities:
- One o’clock (1:00)
- Two o’clock (2:00)
- Three o’clock (3:00)
- Four o’clock (4:00)
- Five o’clock (5:00)
- Six o’clock (6:00)
- Seven o’clock (7:00)
- Eight o’clock (8:00)
- Nine o’clock (9:00)
- Ten o’clock (10:00)
- Eleven o’clock (11:00)
- Twelve o’clock (12:00)
However, you don’t have to use the phrase O’CLOCK. You can simply say the number of the hour by itself. For example, you could say that it’s TEN O’CLOCK, or just say that it’s TEN.
Use the phrase O’CLOCK to tell the following times:
- Two o’clock
- One o’clock
- Ten o’clock
In most languages, there are shorthand ways of saying certain amounts of minutes, such as fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, or forty minutes. English has these as well, though you don’t always have to use them.
I personally always stick to the “hour minute” formula because it’s easier and simpler. Regardless, here are the shorthand phrases you’ll always hear, and you can choose whether or not you want to use them.
HALF PAST + hour
This indicates thirty minutes.
- Half past one (1:30)
- Half past five (5:30)
- Half past eleven (11:30)
A QUARTER PAST + hour
This indicates fifteen minutes, since we are talking about a QUARTER of an hour (sixty minutes).
- A quarter past two (2:15)
- A quarter past seven (7:15)
- A quarter past ten (10:15)
A QUARTER TO/TILL + hour
This indicates that there are fifteen minutes until the coming hour. In other words, it’s the current hour plus forty-five minutes.
- A quarter to three (2:45)
- A quarter till nine (8:45)
- A quarter to twelve (11:45)
While you can state the time by saying the hour followed by the number of minutes, you can also reverse this using a similar formula to the one above. For example, instead of saying that it’s SIX FIFTY, you could say that it’s TEN TO SEVEN. This form is more preferable the less time there is remaining until the next hour.
- Ten to four (3:50)
- Fifteen till eleven (10:45)
- Five to seven (6:55)
Note that this form is only really used with multiples of five. Otherwise, the subtraction gets too inconvenient to do in your head!
Tell the following times using shorthand phrases like HALF PAST, A QUARTER PAST, and A QUARTER TO/TILL.
- A quarter past five
- A quarter to/till two
- Half past eleven
- Ten till/to five
- Five till/to three
One inconvenient aspect of the 12-hour system is having to distinguish morning from evening, or night from afternoon. The most systematic way of doing this is using the terms A.M. and P.M., which stand for the Latin phrases ANTE MERIDIEM (before midday) and POST MERIDIEM (after midday) respectively.
If the time is after or at midnight and before noon, use A.M. If the time is after or at noon and before midnight, use P.M. To pronounce them, you simply spell out the letters.
- 4:15 a.m. (FOUR FIFTEEN A.M.)
- 9:32 p.m. (NINE THIRTY-TWO P.M.)
- 10:00 p.m. (TEN O’CLOCK P.M. or TEN P.M.)
However, you can choose not to use these terms if it’s obvious which of two possible choices you’re talking about. If you tell your friend to meet you AT FOUR, you don’t have to say FOUR P.M., unless you two tend to be night owls. But, you might find it safe to avoid ambiguities.
- A: What time are we meeting tomorrow?
- B: At five.
- A: Wait, A.M.?!
- B: No, P.M., dummy. You think I would ever wake up that early?
There are also other easy ways to distinguish A.M. from P.M. For example, you could say IN THE AFTERNOON, IN THE MORNING, or AT NIGHT.
- A: What time are we meeting tomorrow?
- B: At five.
- A: Wait, in the morning?!
- B: No, in the afternoon, dummy. You think I would ever wake up that early?
But how do we know when the afternoon is? When is it too early to be morning? Obviously, these ranges depend on who the speaker is, as well as what time of year it is (for example, nighttime tends comes earlier in the winter), but here are some ballpark estimates:
- IN THE MORNING can be used from as early as right after midnight until right before noon.
- IN THE AFTERNOON can be used from right after noon until 4 or 5 p.m.
- IN THE EVENING can be used from around 5 p.m. until around 8 p.m.
- AT NIGHT can be used from around 8 p.m. until sometime around 3 or 4 a.m. This might depend on your own sleep schedule.
More for you:
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The following times in either A.M. or P.M. How else could you state them, using phrases like, IN THE MORNING, IN THE AFTERNOON, IN THE EVENING, and AT NIGHT?
- 2:41 p.m.
- 10:21 a.m.
- 12:25 a.m.
- 5:56 p.m.
- 11:18 p.m.
- 2:41 in the afternoon
- 10:21 in the morning
- 12:25 at night OR 12:25 in the morning
- 5:56 in the evening OR 5:56 in the afternoon
- 11:18 at night
The terms NOON and MIDNIGHT are extremely common in everyday speech. Though I’ve already used them multiple times, let’s go over it again:
- NOON means 12 p.m. You can use it in phrases like HALF PAST NOON or TEN TILL NOON.
- MIDNIGHT means 12 a.m. You can also use it in phrases like HALF PAST MIDNIGHT or TEN TILL MIDNIGHT.
If you want to state the time as it is right now, use the phrase IT’S, or some variation of it. For example:
- A: What time is it?
- B: It’s five o’clock (5:00).
- A: Is it seven thirty (7:30) yet?
- B: It’s actually seven thirty-five (7:35).
- A: It was three fifteen (3:15), last time I checked.
However, if you want to say that an event happened at a certain time, use the preposition AT, Do not use prepositions like IN or ON. If you want to approximate a time, use the phrase (AT)AROUND or the phrase AT ABOUT.
- A: Should I show up to the party at ten (10:00) or a little later?
B: I would show up around ten thirty (10:30).
- My lunch break usually starts at noon and ends at about twelve thirty (12:30).
What are words for time? Why do we use them? When can we use them in a sentence? And how do we use them?
This is what we are going to look at together today. When we use time expressions in a sentence, it adds new information to the sentence.
This new information shows us when or for how long something takes place. By definition, we use time expressions to show when a certain action occurred or to indicate the duration of the action.
For example, I went to the cinema yesterday, the movie was two and a half hours long. This sentence tells us when you went to the cinema (yesterday) and the duration of the movie (two and a half hours long).
Let’s take a look at different types of time expressions, I have categorised the expressions into various groups which include basic time expressions but also more complex expressions.
By putting the expressions into lists it will be easier for you to memorise any new time expression
- Words for time which indicate the day
- Words for time which indicate the week, the month or the year
- Words for time which indicate the parts of the day
- Words for time which indicate the period or duration of time
- Words for time when asking a question
- Time Expressions and Verb Tenses
- Time Expressions and Present Tenses
- Time Expressions and Future Tenses
- Time Expressions and Adverbs
- Time Expressions with Direct and Indirect Speech
- Words for time Exercises
Expression which indicate the day:
1. the days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
5. the day before yesterday
6. the day after tomorrow
7. the first/second/third day
8. the last day
- The new restaurant opens on Monday.
- His birthday is tomorrow
- The teacher said to the students, “There will be a test the day after tomorrow”
Expression which indicate the week, the month or the year:
1. months of the year (January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August,
September, October, November, December)
2. the year (2015, 1991)
3. this week
4. last week
5. next week
6. the following week
7. this month
8. last month
9. next month
10. the following month
11. this year
12. last year
13. next year
14. the following year
- I visited California last year.
- My birthday is in April.
- It will rain tomorrow.
Expressions which indicate the parts of the day:
1. in the morning
3. this morning
4. yesterday morning
5. tomorrow morning
6. in the afternoon
7. this afternoon
8. yesterday afternoon
9. tomorrow afternoon
10. in the evening
11. this evening
12. yesterday evening
13. tomorrow evening
14. at night
17. last night
18. tomorrow night
23. breakfast time
26. early in the morning
27. late at night
- I had coffee this morning.
- The concert begins at dusk.
- The English class will be early in the morning.
Expressions which indicate the period or duration of time:
1. a short time
2. a long time
3. a couple of minutes
4. a few hours
5. for ten weeks
6. for six months
7. for two years
8. for thirty minutes
9. for an hour
10. for a couple days
- Kate went to Paris for two weeks.
- The bus ride is a couple of minutes long.
- It will rain for a couple days.
Time expressions when asking a question:
2. What time…?
3. How long…?
4. Since when…?
5. How often…?
- When did you sit the exam? I sat my exam in January.
- How long was the movie? The movie was two hours.
- How often does he travel? He travels every two weeks.
Helpful expressions when you want to request the time in English:
1. What time is it?
2. What’s the time?
3. Do you have the time?
4. Do you know what time it is?
5. What time does the concert start?
6. What time does the movie end?
And expressions to help you respond to the questions above:
1. It is 4 o’clock.
2. It’s 6 P.M.
3. It is half past 2.
4. It is a quarter to 11.
5. It is midnight/midday.
6. The concert starts at 7 P.M. and ends at 9 P.M.
7. The exam is from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M.
- Do you have the time? Yes, it’s a quarter past three.
- What time does the train arrive? The train arrives at midday.
Time Expressions and Verb Tenses:
When using time expressions we must be careful with which tense we use; the past, the present or the future tense, as expressions of time indicate an aspect of time which must be reflected in the tense used in the entire phrase.
If we take the phrase last night as an example, the time expression is referring to yesterday night, a time in the past and late in the day. As it is referring to the past, we cannot use the present continuous tense or the future simple tense on this sentence, for example.
We must use a past tense:
the past simple, continuous, perfect or perfect continuous tense.
- Last night, I went to the cinema. (the past simple)
- Last night, I was going to the cinema. (the past continuous)
- Last night, I had gone to the cinema when he arrived home. (the past perfect)
- Last night, I had been going to the cinema until Kate called me to invite me to a party.
(the past perfect continuous)
Let’s see what other time expressions we can use with the past tenses:
1. last night/week/month/year
2. yesterday (morning/afternoon/evening)
3. the day before yesterday
4. When did…?
5. How long was…?
6. How often did…?
7. back then
8. at the time
9. two/twenty minutes ago
10. three days ago
11. a while/long ago
12. an hour ago
13. a week/month/year ago
16. in the past
- The concert was a month ago.
- How long were they studying for?
- “The bus arrived 15 minutes ago” said the attendant as the bus terminal.
- The shops were so busy during the Christmas season.
Time Expressions and Present Tenses:
What time expressions can we use with the present tenses? Remember we can use the present tense for many different situations such as newspaper headlines, when we talk about our daily or weekly routine, when we are quoting someone, when we are giving instruction and sometimes even when we talk about the future.
Let’s see what time expressions we can use with the present tenses:
3. this week/month/year
4. at the moment
5. as we are talking
7. these days
8. days of the week – on Fridays (when we are talking about habits or repeated actions)
9. times of the day – at 2 o’clock, early, in the evening, in the morning
14. at last
- She works on Sundays.
- They go to the gym in the morning.
- Nowadays social media is very popular.
- Always add the pasta to boiling water.
The time expressions just, ever, never, already and yet are usually used with the present perfect tense too. Take a look below at the examples of the present simple tense with these time expressions.
We use just to show when we have recently completed an action:
- I have just cooked dinner.
- The movie has just started.
We use ever when asking a question:
- Have you ever visited the White House?
- Has he ever cheated in a test?
We use never in negative sentences:
- I have never visited the White House.
- He has never cheated in a test.
We use already when something happened earlier than planned:
- When are you going to take your medicine? I have taken it already.
- Is your brother going to buy you a birthday present? Yes, he has already bought it!
We use yet in negative and interrogative sentences to say something happened later than
- Has the bus departed yet? No, it hasn’t departed yet.
- Have you talked to John yet? No, I haven’t talked to him yet?
Time Expressions and Future Tenses:
Here is a list of time expressions you can use when talking about the future and using a
3. next week/month/year
4. for six weeks/months/years
5. in an hour
6. in a while
7. in the future
10. by the time
- The news will start soon.
- Grace will have been working in the same company for ten years.
- We will go to the park later.
- By the time they get home, the dinner will be ready.
Time Expressions and Adverbs:
General adverbs of time:
11. once in a while
12. from time to time
- I sometimes go to the theatre.
- He never learned how to drive.
- The class normal starts at midday.
Adverbs of time that tell us when an action occurred:
1. yesterday/the other day
- The protest was earlier today.
- They will go skiing during the Christmas holidays.
Adverbs of time which tells us for how long the action occurred:
1. twenty minutes
2. all day
3. for an hour
- The tour is from midday until 4:30 P.M.
- It snowed all day.
Where are these adverbs positioned in a sentence? They are usually placed at the end of the sentence but can be positioned at the beginning of the sentence also.
We normally place the adverb at the beginning of a sentence to emphasise the time the activity occurred.
- I went to the cinema yesterday.
- Yesterday, I went to the cinema.
Adverbs of Frequency tell us how often an action occurs:
10. once a day/week/month/year
11. twice a day/week/month/year
12. three times a day/week/month/year
- She is always late for class.
- The weather is normally a lot colder at this time of year.
- Maria takes her medicine three times a day.
Where are these adverbs positioned in a sentence? Adverbs of frequency are usually placed before the main verb.
I often go to the gym in the morning. But these adverbs come after the verb ‘to be’ or auxiliary verbs in a sentence.
- She is normally at home for dinner.
- She doesn’t usually come home for dinner.
- She has never come home for dinner.
As you can see from the examples above, time expressions effects the entire phrase or sentence. We must make sure to keep the time expression in mind when choosing which tense we are going to use.
Choosing the correct tense for a phrase is extremely important and allows languages learners to show off their new language, if you choose the wrong tense it confuses the entire sentence and the person you are talking to!
Look at these incorrect sentences and their corrections:
- Yesterday, I will go to the shopping center.
- Tomorrow, I will go shopping.
- Last year, I am studying in college.
- Last year, I was studying in college.
- It was raining, at the moment.
- It is raining, at the moment.
Do you see how the tense and time expression contradict each other in the incorrect sentences? Whereas the corrected sentences are coherent and clear. Always look out for the time expression in a phrase or sentence as it can act as a clue to which tense is being used.
Time Expressions with Direct and Indirect Speech:
Another area we must be careful with when choosing time expressions is when we are using indirect speech or reported speech. Indirect speech is used when we want to report what was said by someone in the past.
For example, you could say Craig said that he was happy or they said that they wanted to go to the party the other night. This differs from direct speech as direct speech narrates exactly what was said.
- Craig said, “I am happy” (direct speech)
Craig said that he was happy. (indirect speech)
- They said, “we want to go to the party tonight” (direct speech)
They said that they wanted to go to the party that night. (indirect speech)
Do you see how the tense changes when using the indirect or reported speech? I have gone into further detail about the differences between direct and indirect speech in a previous article. If you are unfamiliar with this topic why not check it out?
Not only does the tense change but the time expression may also changes; tonight becomes that night in the second example. When using the indirect speech you have to remember you are talking about something that happened in the past so naturally any expressions referring to time may need to be adjusted.
I have made a helpful time expression chart for you to see various options when changing an expression in reported speech.
- She said, “I will go to the shop tomorrow”
She said that she would go to the shop today.
- Kate asked her mom, “Did you go to the concert last night?”
Kate asked her mum if she went to the concert the night before.
- I said, “I am hungry now”
I said that I was hungry then.
And that’s everything you need to know about time expressions! I have provided you with various categories of time expressions, along with when and how to use them.
Don’t forget that the choice of time expression is a big determiner of which verb tense to use. Also be careful where you position the time expression in a phrase, remember auxiliary verbs may affect where you place the expression in the phrase.
Now I want you to practice using these new time expressions in the exercises below.
Best of luck!
today yesterday, that day, Friday, the 7th of December
tomorrow today, the next/following day, Monday
yesterday the previous day, Thursday
last week/month/year the previous week/month/year
next week/month/year next week/month/year
Time Expression Exercises:
Ex. 1: Write questions for each sentences below:
The match starts at 3 P.M.
It is 11 in the morning.
The concert is three hours long.
I go to the dentist twice a year.
He never goes to class.
Ex. 2: Complete the sentences with the expressions provided:
nowadays last night always two weeks ago how long starts in how often tomorrow
1. I ______________ go to the lectures.
2. The semester ______________ September and ends in December.
3. ______________, people tend to eat a lot of healthier food.
4. ______________ did you go to Turkey for?
5. ______________ do you visit your family in America?
6. I will finish the report ______________.
7. He was so nervous about the wedding, he couldn’t sleep at all ______________.
8. The birthday party was ______________.