Telling the time in English

(Rules for how to tell the time and use it in a sentence)

Table of contents – telling the time

On this page you will find the following:

  1. How to tell the time
  2. Particularities in American English
  3. 12 or 24 hour format
  4. Further explanations and exercises

How is the time pronounced in English?

The English language offers two ways to express the time. In principle, both methods can be chosen freely, although just one of them is also used for timetables, written time information, etc. Consider the subsequent overview:

  • When pronouncing English times, you need to observe the following rules:
    • o’clock’ is only typical with full hours.
    • minutes’ is only spoken if the number of minutes cannot be divided by five.
Time specification written in numbers English time: possibility 1 (timetables, etc.) English time: possibility 2
2:15 two fifteen a quarter past two
2:30 two thirty half past two
2:45 two forty-five a quarter to three
3:25 three twenty-five twenty-five past three
3:35 three thirty-five twenty-five to four
3:45 three forty-five a quarter to four
4:05 four oh five five past four
4:07 four oh seven seven minutes past four
4:19 four nineteen nineteen minutes past four
5:00 five o’clock five o’clock

Special aspects of American English

In the USA and generally in American English, the following variations are also common in the pronunciation of the time (for additional details, compare the differences between British and American English):

  1. The preposition of timeafter’ is used instead of ‘past’ when the time is a full hour plus some minutes. Compare the examples with ‘6:05 a.m.’:
    • “It’s five after six.”
      • natural in American English
    • “It’s five past six.”
      • natural in British English
  2. If the speaker needs to specify a full hour minus some minutes, ‘of’ or ‘till’ instead of ‘to’ is the regular choice. See the examples with ‘3:50 a.m.’:
    • “It’s ten of four.”
      • American English
    • “It’s ten till four.”
      • American English
    • “It’s ten to four.”
      • British English

Is the 12- or 24-hour format used?

In English-speaking countries, the time is predominantly stated in the 12-hour system. To determine the morning or evening, the complements a.m. or p.m. or, even better, a time of day (‘in the morning, in the evening’, etc.) is specified. Compare:

12-hour clock

The 12-hour format is usually used together with the following additions:

  • a.m.’ (ante meridiem) indicates times between midnight and noon. Consequently, the example sentence “It’s 10:30 a.m.” can be pronounced in the following ways:
    • “It’s ten thirty a.m.
      • spoken with the abbreviation
    • “It’s half past ten in the morning.”
      • here, spoken with a defined time of day
  • p.m.’ (post meridiem) is used for times between noon and midnight. Pronouncing the sentence “It’s 8:00 p.m.” offers the following options:
    • “It’s eight p.m.
      • spoken with the abbreviation too
    • “It’s eight o’clock in the evening.”
      • Likewise, the time of day is an alternative here.
  • Note: If the time of day is obvious, the corresponding addition (‘a.m., p.m., in the morning’, etc.) is omitted:
    • “I usually have breakfast at 7 o’clock.”
      • The complement ‘a.m.’ would be redundant here, as breakfast is only served in the morning.
    • “The party starts at 10 o’clock.”
      • Here, the addition ‘p.m.’ is unnecessary too because parties usually take place in the evenings.

24-hour clock

Time indications in the 24-hour format are only typical for timetables and flight schedules, as well as in the military; however, they are still spoken as pointed out above. Compare:

  • For timetables in general or schedules for buses, trains, ships, planes, etc., ‘15:00 o’clock’, for example, may, therefore, be spoken as follows:
    • ‘three p.m.
    • ‘three o’clock p.m.
    • ‘three o’clock in the afternoon
    • ‘three o’clock’ (if it is clear that the speaker means the afternoon)
    • Careful:fifteen o’clock’ is not utilised.
  • In the military, the pronunciation is slightly different. An example for ‘15:00 o’clock’:
    • ‘fifteen hundred hours’

Further explanations related to the ‘Rules of telling the time’

The following explanations are relating to the topic ‘Telling the time in English (rules and usage)’ and may be interesting as well: