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.


  1. 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".

    1. 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".

  2. All good points--thanks David.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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. :)

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

  7. 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".

  8. 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.

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

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

  11. 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. :-)

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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".

  19. 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.

  20. 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:

  21. 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.

  22. 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

  23. 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.....

  24. Hi,
    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".

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. @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.

  31. "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.

  32. 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).

  33. 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!

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

  35. 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'.

    1. The back of ten is the middle of the forenoon

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

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

  40. timtf

    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.

  41. One difference in writing dates and times that has not been discussed here is the punctuation. I think I'm right in saying that until quite recently the times in British timetables went without punctuation, so for example half past ten at night would be written '2230'. These days, however, many British people, including timetable printers, have adopted the convention (which I take to be American) of inserting a (redundant) colon between the hours and the minutes, thus '22:30'.
    The stroke (slash) in dates is also logically redundant, and those logical Swedes omit that, too. Or at least they used to when I was working in Sweden in the 1990s. So the 2nd of July 2014, would be written '140702'. It takes a little getting used to, but it's a neat and efficient system.
    I note that the Swedish E-mail headers Lynne quotes above include punctuation in the dates, so maybe that convention has been eroded, too. Shame. I blame Microsoft.

  42. Grhm

    The stroke (slash) in dates is also logically redundant

    Yes, that's what's good about it!

    Redundancy in linguistic communication is generally useful, but in some cases more useful than others. A very minor error in a six or eight-digit string of numerals can make it incable of expressing a time or a date. The most likely mistake is for a digit to be omitted (by human or mechanical error). With such desirable redundancies as a colon or slashes, the reader stands a chance of perceiving the error and working out the writer's intention.

    Even when the date is written correctly, the forms with redundant punctuation are far preferable to the alternative. They easier to read, which is always a good thing.

    I don't recall four-digit time expressions in British texts — with one important exception. In popular speech — and therefore in some writing — we add the usefully redundant hours. And rather than relying on the accurate writing/printing of 00 we say hundred. Thus, the redundancy-free 1400 becomes the much superior (as effective communication) fourteen hundred hours.

  43. Redundancy may be good in language, but it's not in information design. All those hundreds of meaningless colons scattered through timetables actually make them harder to read. It goes against Edward Tufte's principle of "maximising data ink".

  44. Grhm

    Redundancy may be good in language, but it's not in information design.

    Better than good, it's indispensable.

    All those hundreds of meaningless colons scattered through timetables actually make them harder to read.

    You and I live in different universes. Those colons make timetables vastly more readable.

    Besides, I find the idea that the colons are 'meaningless' to be totally preposterous.

    You seem to regard the transmission of information as entirely a matter of encoding. Receivers — human or otherwise — are prone to interference, distraction, fatigue and any manner of temporary hiccups in decoding. Pure efficiency is an ever-present source of danger. Redundancy is the solution.

  45. PS

    Redundancy is not a matter of adding meaningless information. It's a process of adding meaningful information in a supplementary form.

  46. Grhm


    The important meaningful information that slashes add to a string of numerals is that it is a date.

    The important meaningful information that a colon add to a string of numerals is that it may be a time.

    Equipped with this information, the brain may choose to focus on one string (before the first slash, between slashes, after the second slash, before the colon, after the colon) — to the exclusion of the other numerals, if he/she is only interested in the day or whatever. Alternatively, the reader may direct the brain to choose a careful processing of each 'number'. Or again, the reader may tell the brain to ignore the numbers entirely, if dates or times are irrelevant for the current purpose in reading — or if they're so obvious as not to merit attention.

    We've come a long away from the 'mission' of this blog. Where these considerations become more pertinent is in cases like your on lunch.

    For most communicative purposes in most settings, the word lunch conveys all the information the hearer needs to 'get the message'. 'John. Lunch', for example, would suffice most of the time. But we do value our redundancy so we add is — something that Russian doesn't bother with. And we add a preposition.

    The beauty of this is that different speech communities are free to add their own preposition. So when some speakers (Americans, you believe) use on it remains totally intelligible virtually all the time to those of us who use at (all Brits, you believe).

    When at-users change their habits to become on-users, they are merely copying the speech group that they now identify with. It's a fashion. Some fashions come and go; others create lasting change — in a culture or in a sub-culture.

  47. OK, so maybe 'redundancy' is the wrong word. "Emptiness of information" is what I meant. (Is there a decent word for that?)

    I'm curious to know exactly what meaning you think is conveyed by those myriad unchanging colons that march in columns through modern timetables.

    Edward Tufte would call them "non-data ink".

    If you've not read him, I heartily recommend that you get him out of the library. Despite the unpromising title, "The Visual Display of Quantitive Information" is a delight to read. He argues his case wittily and cogently, and the book is physically a very beautiful thing.

    Someone recommended it to me some years ago, and it completely revolutionised the way I think about documents.

  48. Oooh. I was generalising from the documents produced by my local bus company, but I've just picked up a South West Trains timetable and I'm delighted to report there's not a colon in sight.
    Which leads to the question relevant to this blog: do American times invariably include colons, or is the (I think) more traditionally British, colonless, representation (e.g. 1046 instead of 10:46) common in the USA too?

  49. Ah, sorry David, our comments crossed there. But I disclaim 'at/on lunch'. It wasn't one of my complaints - that was a different over-opinionated fella, on a different thread.

  50. Grhm sorry about the thread confusion. I appended the on lunch comment in an attempt to get back to the core business of British vs American English.

    You've narrow your abjection to comments in timetables. Well, I won't go to the wall defending them in this instance. Everybody knows that they are times, and the tables provide other prompts to focus the hour part or the minute part or to ignore the number altogether.

    Out of that timetable context, the colon is often invaluable — as are the slashes in dates.

    Returning to British English, I think you've established that different British transport providers have different policies as to colons. If you look back at the very first comment (by David Malone), you'll see that the colon is an international convention, which individual British or American may choose to adopt.

  51. Actually, according to the excellent article by Markus Kuhn, to which David Malone provides a link above, the colon is optional. ISO-8601 permits both 23:20 and 2320.

    (I wish Microsoft had taken cognizance of this when they programmed their Office Suite, which, irritatingly, insists on always putting punctuation in times.)

    I'm not going to pursue my observations about punctuation in dates, as I am British, not Swedish. So I have narrowed my remarks to times. But not solely to timetables.

    I remain of the opinion that in my youth, regardless of the merits of the practice, we British did not insert colons in times. I think I can even remember the first occasion I saw a colon used in this exotic way - it was when I saw my first digital watch.

    So my totally on-mission question, addressed to Americans, is this:
    Are times invariably punctuated in the US, or do you also use unpunctuated formatting along the lines of '2320', which, in the teeth of David Crosbie's disdain, remains quite common practice in the UK?

  52. PS
    I suddenly realised '2320' was a bad example as you don't use the 24-hour clock much over there. But would you always write '11:20 pm', or might you sometimes write '1120 pm' ? And how are the times punctuated in American timetables? (="transportation schedules"?)

  53. Grhm

    ISO-8601 permits both 23:20 and 2320

    In other words, both options are international.

    in my youth, regardless of the merits of the practice, we British did not insert colons in times

    In my youth, the twenty-four hour clock was not generally used. And the time was never represented by a number. In speech, we had the alternative nine fifteen to the more usual quarter past nine. This was written 9.15 — as it still is unofficially by many Brits. In Russia and France, and no doubt many more countries, the full stop is still used in timetables. I'm not sure about Russia, but we have a French railway timetable with no preceding zero. The only old text I've seen with American train times has the format 9.15 p.m..

    Curiously, the separator chosen by the Victorian Bradshaw was neither a full stop nor a colon but a space. Thus 9 15.

    It would seem that the colon is relatively modern device, replacing previous full stop in many countries — including Britain and, I suspect, the US.

    Perhaps this was due to the increasing use of the decimal system with the full stop used as a decimal point at its centre. As I remember it, fractions were the norm when i was a small boy. I first encountered them in school maths lessons.

    Numbers were used, but not for times. Twelve fifteen when written 1215 was the date of Magna Carta. As a time it was written 12.15.

    From the Forces (most adult men) and from the movies/the pictures (most people, young and old), we were aware of the new usage. But it was a singular practice, rather uncommon in chivy street, not in popular use — except in play. We said Oh nine hundred hours and Oh nine fifteen hours. I think comics and novels would write 0900 hours and 0915 hours.

    I don't really see the point of 0915 and 2115. I say Oh nine fifteen and twenty-one fifteen. I would never (never when telling a time, that is) say oh nine one five — let alone one thousand nine hundred and fifteen. Your allegedly 'British' written format is completely at odds with the spoken form. The forms 9.15 and 9:15 at least correspond to the way we say things.

  54. "It would seem that the colon is a relatively modern device, replacing the previous full stop in many countries — including Britain and, I suspect, the US."

    And I suspect not. But both of us are speculating. We need to hear from an American.

  55. Anonymous

    But both of us are speculating.

    Not really. I've searched through illustrations of US railway ephemera. The only format I've found uses a full stop.

  56. If you are right and this use of the colon isn't an import from America, where did it come from, do you suppose?

    It can't be simply an innovation by the authors of ISO-8601, because that standard wasn't published until 1988, and the practice was definitely established by then. See, for example, this picture of an (American) digital watch from c.1976.

    The idea must have come from somewhere.
    My money's still on the US.

  57. PS
    Interestingly, this British digital watch from 1975 appears to have had no punctuation in its display.

  58. Grhm

    appears to have had no punctuation in its display

    Well, it does if you count a space as punctuation. Clive Sinclair chose to carry on the tradition of George Bradshaw.

  59. Yes, indeed. So I wonder what tradition Pulsar were drawing on when they decided to include a colon in their display.

  60. American, reporting in on the colon controversy. (Oh dear, that sounds a little too, um, digestive. Anyway.)

    I remembered having found a website devoted to old airline timetables -- yes, some poor soul(s) have rounded up masses of printed timetables, scanned them, and posted them on the web.

    I chose Braniff Airlines, as (a) it's conveniently out of business, so I don't feel any copyright qualms, (b) it has a long history, and © (fercrissakes, I hate Safari sometimes for its autocorrection) I used to fly it when I was a kid in the 1970s. (For the uninitiated, Braniff was memorable then:

    Here's a timetable from 1938: All colons: (Note the phonetic spelling "Flites" -- I suspect that one was fashionable in the 30s, when flying was still New and Modern.)

    Or another airline I flew, the late and slightly-lamented Northwest (Orient) Airways/Airlines. Here's its 1928 timetable, all colons:

    Contrast Imperial Airways, 1925. All periods/full stops:

    The site is quite a rabbit hole, though.

  61. When I learnt Catalan, which was a year before I began learning Spanish, I was blown away by the time-telling format, which is gradually being replaced by a much more (to my mind) logical "seven forty-five" etc.
    Starting at "x.15",Catalans count towards the next hour, so that "Un quart de vuit" (a quarter from eight) is actually 7.15. It then continues "two quarters from" and "three quarters from" with five or ten being added as required. Thus 7.55 is "tres quarts y deu de vuit" ("Three quarters and ten from eight")

  62. For the past several decades (in the US), I've seen colons used for times almost exclusively. Only within the last few years have I seen periods/full stops being used to separate the hours and minutes. I was under the impression that this was a result of texting habits though - the period key is easier and faster to use than a colon on most phone keyboards (and still makes it fairly clear we're talking about times). Other countries may have developed this habit way before, but for the American general public, I think it's just a reflection of texting laziness/efficiency.

  63. Thank u this is helpful

  64. One difference I noted while in New England recently was that times seemed often to be printed with a/p after them to indicate morning/afternoon. This would never happen in BrE to my knowledge - am and pm are always written with both letters (without or without punctuation)

  65. I'm surprised, in the discussion above regarding how numbers are said, that breaking them down into smaller (one or two digit) components hasn't been addressed. For 121, 1138, and 1050, I'd be most likely to say "one twenty-one," "eleven thirty-eight," and "ten fifty." 104 would usually be "one-oh-four," although 100 would be "one hundred" and 1,004 would be "one [/a] thousand [and] four."

  66. As someone who experiences 9/11 first-hand, I too had reservations at first about adopting "9/11" as the name I'd forever remember that day by. On the other hand, I reject the somber, significance-laden sound of "September 11th" (or "the 11th of September" etc). Discussing my experience often involves finding the energy to climb out of a potential well of fear and trauma. When I start takingt, my first words burst through in a torrent, and once the subject is loosed, I can speak freely. "9/11" rolls off the tongue, is a phrase I can blurt like ripping a bandaid off. It lacks significance, it is light. It's not a date, it's 2 numbers, it's a song. Having been through that experience, and another terrorist attack, I can state with some personal authority that it is often the people who did not have to see these atrocities with their own eyes who desire signifiers laden with meaning.

  67. Interesting. I live in downstate New York (Long Island to be precise) and I've NEVER said "quarter of 10", nor have I ever heard anyone here say it that way. I always said (and heard it as) "quarter to 10."

    As for that particular day in September of 2001, I was affected very much by those events, given it'd happened so close to me and people I'd known were killed that day. I still get a bit emotional whenever anyone mentions it, and maybe that's why I'm a bit confused when you say that calling it "9/11" seems jingoistic and disrespectful. Are you referring to hearing British English speakers saying it that way? Or are you talking about anyone in the world referring to it that way in general? I could see the name sounding so simplistic that it doesn't properly symbolize the horrors that took place that day, but apart from that I haven't really given it much thought. So much time has passed since then (and of course since you first posted this blog entry). *shrugs* That's just the way I see it.

  68. (Elderly, BrE). Yes, my grandmother always said five-and-twenty-past five, and my mother did to a certain extent. I occasionally do, but what I'm most likely to say - and I haven't seen covered in the comments - is Five Twenty-five. Thinking about it, I almost always use that format - "I have a meeting at 7:30" or "Our tickets are timed for 11:30". I'd also say "noon" and "midnight" for the relevant times.

    Re dates, my grandparents, born in the 1890s, would always write August 26th, 2020 (note the comma!); my father did when I was young, I think, but in later years he wrote 26th August. I would always write 26 August....

    1. Your grandparents were born in the 1890s and would always write August 26th, 2020? Goodness, Mrs Redboots, they must be very old!

      Yes, my grandmother (also born in the 1890s) used to say five-and-twenty as well. I wonder if it was more of a rural thing, as my London-born grandmother (twenty years younger than rural Granny, admittedly) never said it.

  69. I know I’m very late to the party here - I originally searched for a post like this because I am hearing “a quarter of..” more and more frequently on American YouTube content, etc. and wondered how common it was in AmE.

    I’m British, but have spent time in Australia and watch a fair bit of Aussie television footage on YouTube. One thing I’ve noticed - particularly in Australian TV promos/trailers or commercials a habit of referring to dates as “July One” or “October Fifteen” - as in “The new season of Linguistics with Lynne begins July One” or “Murphy’s Speechlore is out in cinemas October Fifteen”. 😏 This sounds really jarring to me - absolutely fine as an on-screen caption “starts July 1” etc. but if I was reading that out I would say “starts July the first”, never “July One” - I imagine speakers of AmE might say “starts July first” [I specifically mean if reading word for word from the screen]. So far, I haven’t heard any Aussies talk about their birthday being February Twenty-Six or similar, so perhaps this use is purely a broadcasting “trope”? Any Aussies out there who can clarify, or who wish to comment? Is this a fairly recent thing? Does this sound equally odd or jarring to Americans?


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)