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Talking About Time in English | Student Tips

4 min read
27 January, 2021
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For many international students studying English, one of the hardest things to grasp is learning how to tell the time in English. For many students, their native countries operate a 24-hour clock, whereas in the UK we use a 12-hour clock, and use the numbers from 1-12.

To help you to make sense of the English timing system, here’s some things you need to know, and some tips on telling the time:



The phrase "o'clock" comes from the meaning ‘of the clock’ and is used when you are referencing time on the hour. It works for every hour on the clock, am and pm, but cannot be used when including minutes.

Example: I have a dentist appointment at 2 o'clock.


Time in minutes

When you are referring to the exact time, there are two ways in which you can do this:

1. Say the hour first, followed by the minutes:

  • 8:20 - It's eight twenty
  • 10:05 - It's ten o-five
  • 17:40 – It’s five forty

2. Say the minutes first followed by the hour:

  • 4:35 - It's twenty-five to five
  • 3:20 - It's twenty past three
  • 19:18 - It's eighteen past seven

Quarter past – When people use the term "quarter past" it means that it is a quarter past the hour, e.g. 15 minutes past four.

Half past – When people use the term "half past" it means that it is half past the hour, e.g. 30 minutes past four.

Quarter to – When people use the term "quarter to" it means that it is a quarter to the approaching hour, e.g. 15 minutes until five. 

Minor differences: in the USA, Americans refer to the exact time rather than splitting it into halves and quarters. For example, in American English people will say "four thirty," whereas in the UK people will say "it’s half past four."


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The Time of Day

While numbers will tell you the exact time, it’s also common to talk about the general time of the day instead of being specific. Here are some common words and phrases which are used in reference to time.

  • Morning – The term "morning" refers to the time when the day begins, which is any time between 12am to 12pm.
  • Noon – When someone says "noon" it refers to 12pm, and is the start of the afternoon.
  • Afternoon – The term "afternoon" refers to any time between 12pm to 6pm, which is literally after noon.
  • Midnight – As its name suggests, "midnight" refers to the middle of the night, which is any time between 12am to 3am.


For more language tips

Time Idioms


Asking for the time

Now that you’ve learned how to talk about the time in English, the next step is learning how to ask for the time.

The most common ways of asking for the time are:

  • What time is it?
  • What is the time?
  • Could you tell me the time please?
  • Do you have the time?
  • What time are we meeting?


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