Saturday, August 12, 2006

telling (the) time and dates

The time-telling construction exemplified by quarter of four was among the first Americanisms to be beaten out of me (metaphorically, of course) ex patria. People challenged me to explain why I'd said of when I'd meant 'before', and since I couldn't explain it, I gave up saying it. This is the most opaque of the differing time expressions in AmE and BrE, but there are others. In the table below, the ones that are in bold are particular to one dialect. If they're not in bold, they're used in the other dialect too:

10:15quarter after 10quarter past 10
9:45quarter of 10quarter to 10

In either dialect, one could say half past 10, but Americans generally call it ten-thirty. The BrE half-ten is informal, but common in speech. What's very confusing, if you're someone who is learning both BrE and Swedish at the same time (ok, so maybe it won't bother you), is that in Swedish halv-tio ('half-ten') means 'half an hour until ten', i.e. 9:30.

Some Americans say quarter till ten, which Michael Swan on the BBC Worldservice reports is due to old Scottish English. Hence its effect in the US is strongest in Appalachia.

The other main time-telling difference between the UK and the US is the relative prevalence of the 24-hour clock. In the US, 24-hour time-telling is associated with the military, and with spoken expressions like 'oh-four-hundred hours' or 'twenty-three hundred hours'. Since everyone else only counts up to 12 in telling time, we have to append a.m. and p.m. on everything.

Until recently, Britain did the same, but increasingly the British are following the Continent in using the twenty-four hour clock in writing, for example on invitations, bus and train timetables (AmE=schedules) and digital clocks. In speech, twenty-four-hour time-telling is still a bit artificial. Say you were asked when the next train is. You look at the timetable/schedule, and it says: 18:42, 19:00. It'd be fairly natural to say that the next train is at eighteen-forty-two (or six-forty-two), but for the one after, one would be more likely to say seven o'clock than nineteen hundred. Saying *nineteen o'clock is definitely out.

(Better Half chips in that in the a.m. meaning 'in the morning' is very American.)

Dates, of course, are written differently on either side of the North Atlantic, with North Americans (most strongly US Americans) putting the month before the day and the rest of the world putting the day before the month. I used to be confident that international communication via computer would force a regulari{s/z}ation of date formats, but this doesn't seem to be happening. I assume that underlying mail programs there is a universal way of dating mail, but in the interface it is translated into the format that is local to the recipient. So, emails from my computer have shown up on others' computers in the following formats:
Skickat: den 11 augusti 2006 07:26 [Sweden]
Date: Thursday, August 10, 2006 9:29 pm [Sweden via a US e-mail program]
Sent: 26 July 2006 14:35 [UK]
Sent: Mon 24/07/2006 17:51 [UK]
Sent: Mon 4/24/2006 8:59 AM [US]

There go my hopes for world peace through shared date formatting.

It has been interesting, however, to witness the evolution of the name of that horrible day in September 2001. It didn't take the US media long to settle on Nine-Eleven (usually written 9/11) as the way to refer to that day and its events. In Britain, it was referred to as September 11th for some time after this, but nine-eleven is creeping in. Better Half points out that some Brits have started to refer to the day of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot as five-eleven. This stands for the 5th of November, not the eleventh of May, of course, so it's both an homage to and a corruption of the 9/11 formula. Two such-named plays about the plot were produced for its 400th anniversary last year: 5/11 and Five Eleven.

Myself, I avoid saying 9-11, and become a bit sad when I hear it with a British accent. Perhaps because I was not living in America during and since the events, the term didn't grab hold of me, and I can't help but perceive it as jingoistic and, well, disrespectful. I found the following bit of blogging (from By Neddie Jingo) on this phrasing:
I guess I'm bothered by the idea that "Nine-Eleven" has become a shorthand for a bottomless reservoir of symbolism and automatic, reflexive emotional associations, a thing that's so fraught with meaning that "the terrorists were responsible for 9-11" is used as a justification for the most idiotically disastrous war my country has ever embarked on. It's become, in short, a brand name, a thing used to sell the Iraq War to the people paying for it, and I (and, I imagine, a lot of you) would like to see it subverted.

And that's where you, my international friends, can make a difference.

My suggestion: Insist on calling it "Eleven-Nine," just as your own national conventions dictate. Boy, that'd confound a lot of people who desperately need some confounding. Imagine -- just by gently insisting on the rightness of your own nomenclatural convention, you remove at one blow "Nine-Eleven's" mystical associations. You'd also strike a major blow against the notion of American Exceptionalism, of linguistic hegemony, of cultural imperialism. Strike a blow for Relativism.

I think the notion of 9/11 as a brand name is what strikes me here, and explains to me a little while I've felt so uncomfortable with the term.

Let's hope no other dates need names like this.


David Malone said...

There is a standard format for times used within e-mail headers - a sample looks something like 10 Aug 2006 20:38:38 -0000. The '-0000' at the end indicates the time zone. However, other date formats crop up in other standard protocols.

There is an ISO stamdard for dates and times, which might write the time above as 2006-08-10 20:38:38Z. Markus Kuhn has a good write up of this.

It also seems that plain numbers are said differently in American English. For 121 an American speaker seems likely to say "One hundred twenty one" but a British speaker is more likely to say "One hundred and twenty one". There is also a distinction for numbers like 1138 - Americans seem to lean towards "eleven hundred (and?) thirty eight" but I'd be tempted to say "One thousand, one hundred and thirty eight".

lynneguist said...

All good points--thanks David.

Jen said...

I remember being taught in school that "and" when saying (or writing) a number signifies a decimal point. So, 354.6 is three hundred fifty-four and six-tenths. But I have noticed a tendency for people to say "and" in other places. The phrase "7 a.m. in the morning" seems to be increasing in popularity too.

KathyF said...

I don't remember ever saying "quarter of" nor did I ever hear it much. I used "quarter to" (or "quarter ta' " but I'm not sure that wasn't a shortened "quarter till".

I'm from the south--not Appalachia--by the way, but I've lived all over the U.S. and have no discernible accent.

And, as to 9/11, when the guy from BBC radio interviewed me yesterday, he started off by saying that Americans were perceived as overwrought about the whole 9/11 thing. I think you nailed some of the reasons why that's so in your post.

Becca said...

Some Americans say quarter till ten, which Michael Swan on the BBC Worldservice reports is due to old Scottish English.

How interesting! I'm from Nashville, which, particularly if you have family from the mountains, is so close to Appalachia as to sometimes be considered its western frontier. I knew already that there are a lot of quirks in this dialect from Scottish or Irish sources, but I didn't realize that was one of them.

"A quarter till ten" is the convention I've always used to say 9:45 (if I don't just say "nine forty-five," which is far more frequent). In fact, the first time I heard "quarter of" used at all was when I went to Ohio for college, and I was at first baffled, thinking it must mean 10:15. When I did my junior year abroad in England, of course, my perception of it matched everyone's around me, and it was grand. :)

ally said...

Of course, in British English, this post would be called 'Telling THE time and dates'...

barnoid said...

The advantage of the ISO standard year-month-day format is that it puts the most significant value first (known in computing circles as big-endian, as opposed to little-endian). This is the same way that we format numbers, so the ISO format is very convenient for sorting using a computer. A directory full of files named by date in ISO format will automatically be in chronological order if they are sorted alphabetically.

When I worked in catering (in the UK) I had a Swedish colleague who occasionally got confused by best before dates because she was expecting them to be in year-month-day format. Looking at the Wikipedia article it looks as if Sweden is one of the few European countries that use that format, though it is quite popular in Asia. Also it looks as if Canada is in a big mess of formats!

The "quarter till" thing reminds me of the Otis Redding song Cigarettes and Coffee which has the line "About a quarter till three".

lynneguist said...

Many good and interesting points.

kathyf: You're right. The 'quarter of' thing is more common in the northern US than the southern US, but seems to be understandable throughout the US--whereas it creates misunderstandings when used in the UK.

Ally--VERY good point--I'm going to rename the post!

Thanks to all for the comments.

Anonymous said...

In the table that compares the AmE & BrE expressions for telling the time it says
10:45 (not 9:45) => quarter to 10

lynneguist said...

Whoops. I'm worst at editing myself. Have corrected that.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember where, but I read somewhere that the common US form (m/d/y) is actually older than the common rest of the world form (d/m/y). For example, the Declaration of Independence has July 4, 1776 at the top, and the King's response is dated in the same format. For a while I tried to be all cool and European and write all my dates in d/m/y format, but then I found out the history behind it and relaxed in my American-ness. :-)

Daisy said...

Quarter till, quarter to and quarter of all mean the same thing to me, but I increasingly seem to say quarter till or quarter to because that's what people say in the area where I live now, though I don't really know if it's quarter to or more an abbreviation/slurring of quarter till.

Quarter of was one of the things about my speech that seemed to baffle people until I managed to kill off most of the stranger parts of my Boston accent and dialect.

The Ridger, FCD said...

As a translation teacher, I struggle to get my students to remember to change dates. Oddly, they all know that 6.9.06 means Sept 6th in the original, but they forget to change it.

I have always hated 9/11. Sounds like a casual, advertising kind of name to me. But a friend pointed out something I hadn't noticed before: the only American date that's used to mark something is the Fourth of July. All of our other holidays/memorial days/big celebrations or remembrances have names. (Strangely, Independence Day exists but isn't used much in comparison to The Fourth.) He guessed that's the main reason we haven't made a Monday holiday out of Independence Day. Maybe, though, it has something to do with why we don't say the Ninth of September?

oh yes - I'm from Tennessee and I probably say all three of "till, to, and of" the hour. At least, they all sound normal to me.

Richard Strempski said...

Of course you all realize that 911 is the phone number for emergency assistance in the US

lynneguist said...

Yes, but that's pronounced 9-1-1, not 9-11.

There's a story that the phone number was originally called 9-11, but some panic was created when people couldn't find the 'eleven' button. That may well be an urban legend.

Anonymous said...

but crucially, english people (i am a native) wouldn't (and don't) say 'september 11th' we would say 'september the 11th' even, if the 'the' is an almost inaudible 'th', it is always present
to me this is a very important distinction and the american omission of the 'the' really grates on me.

Anonymous said...

well I still wonder why the yanks make such a fuss about the fall of the Berlin wall ... (on 9/11/89).

Although I guess it was a rather more important event that they one they are actually referring.

John Cowan said...

One hundred twenty-one is the product of early 20th-century American educationists, who decided that the and in the natural English form was "unnecessary" and inculcated the clipped form into generations of American schoolchildren.

And yes, 2007-01-02 is rationally big-endian, 2/1/2007 is rationally little-endian, and 1/2/2007 is a numerical imitation of "January the second, 2007".

Tim FitzGerald said...

Short-hand date order is a common problem where I work, in a Montreal (French-speaking, who use day-month-year) office to a decidedly Toronto-centric company (English-speaking, who mostly use month-day-year).

I do my part to settle the issue by using the ISO yyyy-mm-dd format (as well as 24-hour time) in my documents. I also set up my Windows settings to do the same, so that automated timestamps like on e-mails show up the same way.

To anonymous: it's curious that the U.S. Declaration of Independence should be dated July 4, but that it is categorically referred to as "the Fourth of July", in what is more British style.

Cameron said...

Tim, it seems even more curious that the Declaration of Independence should be headed "July 4th" because American independence was not declared on the fourth of July, which kind of exposes anonymous's tale as an urban legend (which doesn't sound as though it will surprise them a great deal). Anonymous better go back to the format used by the entire rest of the world, then...
The story can be found here:

James said...

But Cameron, if you look at the image at the US National Archives, it says "July 4, 1776" in huge letters at the top. Your link claims that is not the/an original but one printed two days later. This seems to be true but appears not to affect the point that it was the standard way of writing the date at the time.

Whatever the case, the most logical way of writing the date is in the format yyyy/mm/dd. (Have you ever tried to have dates in computer file names?) It's a bit silly to argue about which of the two most common permutations is further from this one. And it also has the advantage that there's never any confusion about what it means. As to endianness, dd/mm/yyyy is little-endian overall, but the numbers themselves are big-endian.

Argile Ecossais Wallanklagebank said...

I love liguistics. i think i am going to spend way to many hours reading your blog. i already love it. (helped me understand half-eleven meeting with a brit friend here in france) out

Anonymous said...

Just to add to this, my 90-year old grandparents use "Five-and-twenty" for 25 when telling the time.

So it's "Five and twenty past nine," etc.....

Anonymous said...

Just to back up that last comment from 'anonymous' (we must be related.. ;o)

Growing up in my family, I witnessed the dying out of "five and twenty", as in 4:35 = "five and twenty to (five)".

I grew up in Sheffield, England. My mom's parents used "five and twenty" almost exclusively (born around 1913/1918), whereas my parents only rarely did.

To me (born in 1972) it always just seemed like "one of those grandparent things" - so I never used it. It was interesting when I later learned Dutch and German to note that the number structure they use for 25 is the same as "five and twenty".

Anonymous said...

I was gratified, in a way, to read Becca’s account of being baffled at the use of "quarter of". Even after spending many years in the US (the Northeast), I still do a mental double-take when I hear it!

Anonymous said...

I'm from New York State, and you'll hear "quarter of" pretty often here. If someone asks me what time it is, and the minutes are :45, I'll just say "It's quarter of." Usually without the hour, unless asked. Sometimes I even say "It's a quarter of." If I'm saying the hour too, I use either "of" or "to." I don't think I ever say "eleven forty-five," or "ten-fifteen." I say "quarter after," usually without the hour.

Boris said...

I (New Jersey) would only say Quarter of without the hour. With the hour it sounds very weird.

Regarding 9/11, note that no one says dates like that in general. It's how one might write it down, though. Today is definitely not "one four". I usually don't say "Nine Eleven" either, preferring "September Eleventh", but I think both are set phrases used interchangeably around here. President Bush seems to always say "September the Eleventh" which someone here marked as UK. I have no problem with that form (for any date), but it's not what I say. I don't know how Obama says it, but it's probably unremarkable to me, considering I haven't noticed.

lynneguist said...

Since writing this post, I've become very familiar with a song from one of They Might Be Giants' children's albums, called 'Four of Two'. It's very sweet: see here for the lyrics.

Emmalyn said...

It drives me crazy when my mom, who is from New York, says that it is quarter "of" the hour. This makes no sense to me. The words "till" and "to" indicates in mathmatic terms of coming before. Where the word "of" I belive is used to represent a fraction or division. like 1 of 4 would be 1/4. Does anyone have a strong arguement for using the word "of" when telling time?

lynneguist said...

@Emmalyn: If you're expecting language (any language) to be logical, you're going to be disappointed very often! The argument for saying it is that it's what people around you say and understand. 'Of'-sayers who aren't used to the 'to' version find it confusing when people appear to be saying '4-2-2' when they mean 'four minutes before two', so at least the 'of' version doesn't have that potential for ambiguity.

Anonymous said...

"Quarter of" is a shortened form of saying, "it's a quarter of an hour until.." I'm surprised there are so many people that use this phrase that said they didn't know what it meant.

chuckanado said...

California native here, but my parents moved here from Arkansas so that probably has some effect.
I typically say "It's a quarter 'til" (with 'til being a shortening of "until"). I may just leave it at that, or I might say the actual hour (quarter 'til nine), or I might even literally say "quarter 'til the hour".
Occasionally I'll use other forms like "twenty 'til" or "ten 'til", but not as often as "quarter 'til".
I think this usage is going away with the prevalence of digital clocks. I grew up using mostly analog clocks, so when I look at one I can visibly see that the minute-hand is approaching the top, so the proximity of its approach seems to naturally translate into a "something 'til" phrasing. My teenage kids, who've grown up with mostly digital time displays, rarely use this form. They'll say "eight forty-five", "eight fifty-one", and such. Also, they tend to say the exact time they see on the clock, whereas I, looking at an analog clock, will usually round to the nearest five-minute mark (unless I feel the need to convey more precision).

Murli said...

but crucially, english people (i am a native) wouldn't (and don't) say 'september 11th' we would say 'september the 11th' even, if the 'the' is an almost inaudible 'th', it is always present
to me this is a very important distinction and the american omission of the 'the' really grates on me.

One of my friends once posed the riddle, "What's the only date in the calendar that actually means something?" and immediately provided the answer as, "March Fourth!" Meaning, "March forth." An English friend present at the time immediately objected, saying that the date should be read "March the Fourth."

I believe chuckanado is wrong about "till" being a shortening of the word "until". I'd provide a reference but can't be bothered. I know because I used to think this myself until some pedant patiently corrected me and provided corroborating evidence, including etymology.

One last thing -- I seem to recall from basic German lessons many years ago, that "half-ten" said in German translates to 9.30. Imagine keeping a German waiting for an hour!

lynneguist said...

Indeed, 'until' comes from 'till', not the other way (a)round:
See here..

David Crosbie said...

A joke that used to circulate among Russian teachers of English. Two strangers in a London street:

A: Which watch?
B: Half sixth.
A: Such much!
B: Glory be! You studied at the same Institute of Foreign Languages!

In short, the time was 5.30. Russian is like Swedish except that it uses ordinals rather than cardinals.

[The first joke depends on the fact that the word for hour in Russian is also used to mean 'clock' or 'watch'.]

Another confusing expression is the Scottish back of NUMBER. It means one of two things and I keep remembering the wrong one. The right meaning of back of ten is — I think 'after ten'.

Bruce Armstrong said...

I'm a bit surprised that no American mentioned the US military dating format. It is day, month, year in stark contrast to normal US civilian usage. It is thus the same as the supposed civilian British usage.

However, though I am now Canadian, I was born in England, and despite protestations here by BrE types, growing up in Oxford I saw both formats. My birth certificate is dated 22nd day of September 19xx. My baptismal certificate is dated December 28th 19xx, some three months later. Both are handwritten, although the Birth certificate is constrained by bureaucracy to be the order it is. The Baptismal certificate is entirely freehand.

My Canadian immigration certificate is dated Aug 1, 19xx yet my Citizenship certificate is dated 18 January 19xx.

In other words, all this is a bit of a kerfuffle about not much. The way to go is ISO, in my opinion. Year, month, day.

Andrea Digney said...

I'm Western Canadian and I've always heard/said "quarter to" or for example 8:45, I had no idea that people in the US say "quarter of", that sounds to me like it should be quarter past/quarter after (both are acceptable in Canadian English though "after" is more common in my experience), not quarter to.

And 9/11 is more common here, but September 11th gets used as well.

Anonymous said...

The UK (or maybe just London) has taken to using 7/7 for the London bombings on the 7th of July 2005. Which I find hideous.

Romulus said...

In Western U.S. no one understands "quarter of ten". The usage is mainly Northeastern.

timtfj said...

I'd only rarely use "one hundred and" in (BrE) speech---for me it feels too formal. I'd say 121 and 1138 as "a hundred and twenty-one" and "eleven hundred and thirty-eight". 1050 is a thousand and fifty.

"One thousand, one hundred and... " would mean I was laboriously emphasising each digit, maybe to express irritation with the hearer or because there was something special about the number.

Oddly I can't imagine anyone saying "a thousand, a hundred and thirty-eight", even though that would be nicely logical and consistent.

One irritation: newsreaders who say "the a hundred and fifty people" rather than just "the hundred and fifty people".

David Crosbie said...


I'd only rarely use "one hundred and" in (BrE) speech

Numbers aren't all that special. You usually say I met to a man who liked numbers , but sometimes you say I met one man who liked numbers:

• with heavy stress, meaning 'only one'

• with just the usual stress, meaning 'one that I'm going to talk about — never mind any others'

In other words, there's a strong or weak contrast between one and any other possible number of men.

Similarly one hundred and twenty-one is like saying 'not 221, or 321, or 421 or any similar-sounding number. This isn't usually worth saying, but we do introduce that little contrast when we're afraid the listener might not be paying full attention to the numerical detail.

Oddly I can't imagine anyone saying "a thousand, a hundred and thirty-eight"

Not really odd. It isn't an ordinary list like
a man, a fish and a bicycle.

This can be changed with only a slight stylistic difference into:

a fish, a man and a bicycle
a bicycle, a fish and a man

More to the point, we can say

a thousand men, a hundred fish and thirty-eight bicycles
a hundred fish, thirty-eight bicycle and a thousand men

or any order that takes our fancy.

The number 1,138 is not a list like these.

• The order is obligatory. There only exceptions are a few fossilised archaisms like five and twenty

• The use of one rather that a is obligatory.

The one use is actually a clearer signal. The descending order thousand ⇒ hundred could be accidental. For example:

How many men, how many women and how many children were there?
A thousand, a hundred, and thirty-eight if those happens to be the numbers.

But the answer could be
Thirty-eight, a hundred, and a thousand if such were the facts.