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2 min read
Lea Mitchell
October 20, 2023
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2 min read

Time expressions in English

Have you ever found yourself puzzled by English expressions about time? Explore them in this comprehensive guide, which offers clear examples and tips for effective, contemporary communication.
Time expressions in English

Time expressions in English

In English, we have some peculiar expressions when it comes to talking about time. You might have come across a few of them in school, but they can sound outdated or even puzzling today. In this detailed guide, we'll break down the differences, providing examples and tips for effective communication.

Understanding the 12-hour clock: am and pm

The 12-hour clock system is predominant in US English. The abbreviations "a.m." and "p.m." signify morning and evening respectively. For instance, consider the sentence: "I start work at 9 a.m. and meet friends for drinks at 9 p.m."

In casual speech, you may omit "a.m." or "p.m." when the context is clear. Saying "Meet me at 4" generally implies 4 p.m., because meetings at 4 a.m. are not a social norm! Therefore, being aware of these subtle hints in conversation is crucial for effective communication.

Man hinting at being smart

The 24-Hour clock

The 24-hour format, while understood, is seldom used in everyday English conversation. Saying "Let’s meet for dinner at 19:00" might confuse your English-speaking peers, prompting them to convert it into the 12-hour format mentally. This format is mainly reserved for military or business contexts, particularly those operating across different time zones.

Two businessmen walking

The etymology of "O’clock"

"O’clock" originated from "of the clock" and is used to denote exact hours. For example: "The train arrives at 8 o’clock," which means precisely at 8:00. However, when minutes are added, the term 'o'clock' is dropped. Saying "It’s already eight o'clock and five minutes" would be grammatically incorrect. Thus, understanding when to use and omit 'o’clock' is essential for accurate communication in English.

Time expressions: minutes and hours

Typically, English speakers express time by stating the minutes followed by the hour. For instance, for 9:14, you would say "nine fourteen." For times like 9:02, you would say "nine-oh-two", using 'oh' to represent the zero. This method allows for a clear and straightforward way of expressing time, making conversations efficient and easily understood.

For instance, when planning to meet a friend for an early morning coffee, you can say, "Let’s meet at seven forty-five," making the arrangement clear by using the simplified time expression for 7:45.

Person talking on the phone

Quarters and ‘half past’ variations

For 15-minute intervals, US English often uses "quarter past" or "quarter after." For example, for 9:15, you can say "It’s a quarter past nine." Similarly, for 9:45, saying "It’s a quarter till ten" or "It’s quarter to ten" is common, providing variations for expressing time which might be intriguing for non-native speakers to learn and use in daily conversation.


Caution with "half past"!

For 30 minutes past the hour, British English often uses "half past." For example, for 2:30, saying "It’s half past two" is customary. It’s crucial for German speakers to understand that "half two" in English refers to 2:30 and not 1:30, as it would mean in German. Paying attention to these subtle differences is essential to avoid confusion and miscommunication.


English time expressions, with their nuances, might seem complicated initially. However, with this guide as a reference, you will find it much easier to understand and use these phrases correctly. Practice and immersion are the best ways to master these expressions, paving the way for fluent and effective communication.