How to Tell the Time in English

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Understanding how to tell time in English is an essential skill for language learners. Whether it's setting a meeting, planning your day, or understanding schedules, you'll find it easier with a good grasp of the related vocabulary. This article will provide you with key vocabulary, phrases, and knowledge about time zones and world clocks. 
Time in English

Numbers and Ordinal Numbers

Before we dive into the specifics of telling time, it's important to get comfortable with the numbers and ordinal numbers. These are the building blocks for many time-related phrases in English.

  • Zero: Often referred to as 'O' when telling time, such as "five O’clock."
  • (1-12 respectively) One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve: Basic numbers used to tell the hours. It's crucial to learn these.
  • (13-24 respectively) Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty-one, Twenty-two, Twenty-three, Twenty-four: Numbers used to indicate hours in the 24-hour clock format.
  • First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth: These ordinal numbers are used to specify the hours in expressions like "the first hour."
  • Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-first, Twenty-second, Twenty-third, Twenty-fourth: Ordinal numbers for hours in a 24-hour format.
  • Half: Represents 30 minutes past an hour, as in "half past five."
  • Quarter: Indicates 15 minutes or a quarter of an hour. Used in phrases like "a quarter past" or "a quarter to."
  • Minute: The term for each 60-second interval within an hour.
  • Second: The smallest commonly-used unit of time.
  • Dozen: Sometimes used informally to mean twelve, as in "a dozen minutes past."

Learning numbers and ordinal numbers is a crucial step in understanding how to tell time in English. Whether you're using these terms to specify an exact hour, minute, or even a fraction of an hour, they are the fundamental components of English time.

Clock Terminology

Now, let's explore some common terminology related to clocks, which are the primary tools for telling time.

  • Clock: A device used to measure and display time.
  • Hand: refers to one of the pointing devices attached to the center of the clock face that rotates to indicate specific units of time.
  • Hour Hand: The shorter hand on a clock that indicates the hour.
  • Minute Hand: The longer hand that points to the minutes.
  • Second Hand: The hand that moves fastest, showing the seconds.
  • Face: The front part of a clock where the hands and numbers are displayed.
  • O’clock: Used to indicate a precise hour, such as "seven o’clock."
  • Midnight: The start of a new day, or 12:00 at night.
  • Noon: The middle of the day, or 12:00 in the afternoon.
  • A.M.: Stands for "ante meridiem," Latin for "before midday." It is used to denote morning hours.
  • P.M.: Stands for "post meridiem," Latin for "after midday." It indicates afternoon and evening hours.

Familiarity with clock terminology not only helps you to tell time but also allows you to describe and understand various aspects related to clocks. Now that you are equipped with this vocabulary, you can more accurately convey time in English.


Time Expressions

To effectively communicate time in English, you need to be familiar with common time expressions.

  • At the crack of dawn: Very early in the morning.
  • At dawn: When the day starts, at sunrise.
  • In the morning: The period after sunrise and before noon.
  • Around noon: Approximately at midday.
  • In the afternoon: The period after midday and before the evening.
  • At dusk: The period just before the night begins, at sunset.
  • In the evening: The period after sunset and before bedtime.
  • At midnight: Precisely at the start of a new day.
  • Past/After: Used to indicate minutes after the hour, such as "ten past eight."
  • To/Before: Used to show minutes before the next hour, like "quarter to nine."

Being able to use and understand these time expressions is key to your daily communication. These phrases give you the power to be specific about timeframes, which will make your English conversations more precise and meaningful.

Phrases and Questions

Now you're ready to build and understand sentences about time. Here are some different ways to tell the time or ask about it:

  • What time is it?: A question asking about the current time.
  • It's [time]: The standard way to answer a question about time, like "It's half past three."
  • At what time…?: A question asking for a specific time, such as "At what time is the meeting?"
  • Around/about [time]: A phrase to denote an approximate time, like "around 5 P.M."
  • Until [time]: A phrase that sets an end time, such as "until noon."
  • From [time] to [time]: A phrase to indicate a time range, like "from eight to five."
  • [Time] in the morning/afternoon/evening/night: To specify a period of the day, such as "2 P.M. in the afternoon."
  • It's time to…: A phrase to suggest starting an activity, like "It's time to start the meeting."
  • Take your time: An expression to tell someone not to rush.
  • In no time: An expression meaning very quickly.
  • Time flies: An expression meaning time passes quickly.
  • Have a hard time: An expression to indicate difficulty.
  • Long time no see: An informal way to greet someone you haven't seen in a while.
  • Time is money: A phrase to express that time is valuable.
  • Better late than never: A phrase that means it's better to do something late than not do it at all.

Now that you are familiar with these phrases and questions, you can inquire about, answer, and discuss time in English more effectively. Keep practicing these phrases and questions to enhance your fluency and confidence.

Time Zones and World Clocks

Understanding time zones and world clocks is essential for managing time when dealing with different regions or countries.

  • GMT (Greenwich Mean Time): The time zone based on the Prime Meridian (0° longitude) in Greenwich, London.
  • UTC (Coordinated Universal Time): The modern replacement for GMT. Although similar, UTC is more precise.
  • EST (Eastern Standard Time): The time zone for the eastern part of the United States.
  • PST (Pacific Standard Time): The time zone for the western part of the United States.
  • CET (Central European Time): The time zone for central Europe.
  • IST (Indian Standard Time): The time zone for India.
  • JST (Japan Standard Time): The time zone for Japan.
  • AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time): The time zone for the eastern part of Australia.
  • Daylight Saving Time (DST): The practice of setting the clock ahead by one hour during warmer months to extend evening daylight.
  • World Clock: A clock displaying the time for various cities around the world, often found in airports and online.

Understanding time zones and world clocks is an essential part of dealing with international times. Now, whether you are scheduling a call with someone in a different country or traveling, you'll be able to manage time effectively across different regions.


Mastering the vocabulary of time in English is a crucial part of your language-learning journey. Whether you're telling time, understanding time expressions, or navigating time zones, the vocabulary, and phrases in this guide will help you handle time-related situations with confidence. Remember, practice makes perfect, so keep trying until telling time in English becomes second nature!

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EsmeMar 19th, 2024
I love how this article explores the nuances of vocabulary usage. It's both educational and fascinating!
niko ratliffNov 7th, 2023
the explanations are concise and to the point. great job!