English Usage Topics > Time
When you want to know the time at the moment you are speaking, you say 'What time is it?' or 'What's the time?'
'What time is it?' – 'Three minutes past five.'
'What's the time now?' – 'Twenty past.'
When asking about the time of an event, you usually use when.
'When did you come?' – 'Just after lunch.'
You can also use 'What time'.
'What time did you get back to London?' – 'Ten o'clock.'
'What time do they shut?' – 'Half past five.'
When you tell someone the time, you say 'It's...'.
It's ten to eleven now.
Note the following points:
- The twenty-four hour clock is used on some digital clocks and on timetables. In this system, five o'clock in the afternoon, for example, is expressed as 17.00.
In the United States, the 24-hour clock is not very common, and timetables use the 12-hour system, with a.m. and p.m.
- You can use o'clock only when saying exact hours, not times between hours. For example, you can say five o'clock, but you don't say 'ten past five o'clock' or 'a quarter past five o'clock'.
Come round at five o'clock.
I must leave by eight o'clock.
Note that when using o'clock, people usually write the number as a word (for example five), not a figure ('5').
- You don't have to use 'o'clock' when referring to an exact hour. People often just use a number.
I used to get up every morning at six.
- When saying times between hours, you can use past and to. You use past and a number when referring to a time thirty minutes or less after a particular hour. You use to and a number when referring to a time less than thirty minutes before a particular hour.
It's twenty past seven.
He returned to the house at half past four.
He got to the station at five to eleven.
You don't normally use the word 'minutes' in these expressions.
Speakers of American English often use after instead of 'past', and of instead of 'to'.
It was twenty after eight.
At a quarter of eight, he called Mrs. Curry.
- You only use the word minutes when you are talking about times between sets of five minutes, or when you want to show that you are being accurate and precise.
It was twenty-four minutes past ten.
We left Grosvenor Crescent at five minutes to ten.
- If it is clear what hour you are talking about, you don't need to add the hour after past or to.
'What time is it?' – 'It's eighteen minutes past.'
It's quarter past.
'What time's break?' – 'Twenty-five to.'
- You can also express a time by saying the hour first and then the number of minutes past the hour. For example, you can say 7.35 as seven thirty-five.
If the number of minutes is less than 10, many people say '0' as oh before the number of minutes. For example, 7.05 can be said as seven oh five or seven five.
You put a full stop after the hour when writing a time like this. Some people, especially Americans, use a colon instead.
At 6.30 each morning, the partners meet to review the situation.
The door closes at 11:15.
- You can make it clear when a time occurs, if necessary, by adding a prepositional phrase. Note that you say in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening, but you say at night, not 'in the night'.
It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.
They worked from seven in the morning until five at night.
You can also add a.m. to indicate a time between midnight and midday, or p.m. to indicate a time between midday and midnight. These abbreviations are not generally used in conversation in British English.
The doors will be opened at 10 a.m.
We will be arriving back in London at 10.30 p.m.
Don't use 'a.m.' or 'p.m.' with 'o'clock'.
Prepositions showing time
The commonest preposition used to show the time when something happens is at.
The taxi arrived at 7.30.
They'd arranged to leave at four o'clock.
I'll be back at four.
Other prepositions are used in the following ways to show when something happens:
- If something happens after a particular time, it happens during the period that follows that time.
It's a very quiet place with little to do after ten at night.
- If something happens before a particular time, it happens earlier than that time.
I was woken before six by the rain hammering against my bedroom window.
- If something happens by a particular time, it happens at or before that time.
I have to get back to town by four o'clock.
- If something happens until a particular time, it stops at that time. Till is often used instead of 'until' in conversation.
I work until three.
I didn't get home till five.
- If something has been happening since a particular time, it started at that time and it is still happening.
He had been up since 4 a.m.
You can show that a time is approximate by using about or around in front of the time.
We were woken up at about four o'clock in the morning.
The device, which exploded at around midnight on Wednesday, severely damaged the fourth-floor bar.
At is sometimes left out.
He left about ten o'clock.
In conversation, people sometimes show an approximate time by adding '-ish' to the time.
Shall I call you about nine-ish?
You can say that something happens just after or just before a particular time. You can also use shortly after or shortly before.
We drove into Jerusalem just after nine o'clock.
He came home just before six o'clock and lay down for a nap.
Shortly after nine, her husband appeared.
When saying what the time is or was, you can also use just gone in British English, or just after.
It was just gone half past twelve.
It was just after 9pm on a cold October night.
Periods of the day
The main periods of the day are:
You can use the prepositions in or on with words referring to periods of the day. You can also use last, next, this, tomorrow, and yesterday in front of these words to form adverbial phrases.
I'll ring the agent in the morning.
On Saturday morning all flights were cancelled to and from Glasgow.
I spoke to him this morning.
He is going to fly to Amiens tomorrow morning.
For detailed information on how to use these words and which prepositions to use with them, see Usage entry at each word.
There are also several words that refer to the short period when the sun rises or sets:
- first light
You use at with these words when showing that something happens during the period they refer to.
At dawn we landed in Tunisia.
Draw the curtains at sunset.
Adverbs showing time
The adverbs and adverbials in the two lists below are used to show that something happened in the past. Note that all these adverbials can be put after the first auxiliary in a verb phrase.
The following adverbials can be used with past tenses and with the present perfect:
- in the past
It wasn't very successful in the past.
Her husband had recently died in an accident.
The following adverbials can be used with past tenses but not normally with the present perfect:
- at one time
- earlier on
The cardboard folder had been blue originally but now the colour had faded to a light grey.
The world was different then.
Before is not used with the present perfect when simply showing that a situation existed in the past. However, it is used with the present perfect to show that this is not the first time that something has happened.
I'm sure I've read that before.
The tenses used with already are different in American English and British English.
You use the following adverbials when referring to the future:
- at once
- before long
- in a minute
- in a moment
- in future
- in the future
- later on
- one day
- one of these days
- some day
- sooner or later
- within minutes
- within the hour
We'll be free soon.
I'll remember in a minute.
In future when you visit us you must let us know in advance.
These adverbials are usually put at the end or beginning of the clause.
'Momentarily' is used when referring to the future in American English, but not in British English.
You use the following adverbials to contrast the present with the past or the future, or to show that you are talking about a temporary situation in the present:
- at the moment
- at present
- just now
- right now
- these days
Biology is their great passion at the moment.
Well, we must be going now.
These adverbials are usually put at the end or beginning of the clause.
Note that today is used, mainly in newspapers and broadcasting, to refer to the present time in history as well as to the day on which you are speaking.
...the kind of open society which most of us in the Western world enjoy today.
Note that already is used when referring to a present situation, as well as when referring to the past.
I'm already late.
Times as modifiers
Clock times and periods of the day can be used as modifiers.
Every morning he would set off right after the eight o'clock news.
He was usually able to catch the six thirty-five train from Euston.
But now the sun was already dispersing the morning mists.
People often refer to a train or bus by the time it leaves a particular place. They talk, for example, about the six-eighteen, meaning 'the train that leaves at six-eighteen'.
He knew Alan caught the seven-thirty-two most days.
Possessive forms of periods of the day can also be used as modifiers, when talking about a particular day.
It was Jim Griffiths, who knew nothing of the morning's happenings.
They are also used when saying how long an activity lasts.
He still had an afternoon's work to get done.
Time adverbials after nouns
You can use a time adverbial after a noun, in order to give more information about events or periods of time.
I'm afraid the meeting this afternoon tired me badly.
No admissions are permitted in the hour before closing time.
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