How to Tell Time in French

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7-04-2021, 21:00
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You're talking along in French and it's going great until the other person says "Quelle heure est-il ?" (KEHL EURH EHT-EEL?) You freeze. While you've been working on your basic conversational French, you haven't yet figured out how to tell time. You could simply hold up your smartphone or watch for them to see, but it would be so much better to smoothly say "Il est sept heures et demie !" (It's 7:30!) Luckily, as long as you know your numbers, telling time in French is a breeze. Allons-y ! (Let's go!)

Hours

  1. Use the numbers 1-24 in French to tell hours on the clock. The French typically use the 24-hour clock, also known as "military time" in the US. Although many French speakers understand the 12-hour clock, the time on digital clocks, timetables, and schedules will always be in 24-hour time. If you're rusty on your numbers, here they are so you can brush up:
    • 1-12: une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix, onze, douze
    • 13-24: treize, quatorze, quinze, seize, dix-sept, dix-huit, dix-neuf, vingt, vingt et un, vingt-deux, vingt-trois, vingt-quatre
  2. Say "il est" followed by the number of the hour to tell the time. Always add "heure" or "heures" after the number word. Just say "heure" if it's one o'clock, but for any other time, use the plural "heures." Although both words usually sound the same, the "s" at the end of the plural makes a "zh" sound if the word following it starts with a vowel.
    • For example, if someone asks you what time it is, you might reply "Il est cinq heures."
    • The word "heures" literally translates to "hours," but when telling time, it takes the place of "o'clock." So in the previous example, you're literally saying "It is five o'clock."
  3. Use "midi" (MEEDEE) and "minuit" (MIHN-WEE) for noon and midnight. The French never refer to the 12-o'clock hour by the number. Also, since the French use the 24-hour clock, midnight is technically the zero hour. Always say "midi" for noon and "minuit" for midnight, even when you're adding minutes after the hours. However, don't include the word "heures."
    • For example, if someone asked you at exactly noon what time it was, you would say "il est midi."
  4. Include the appropriate phrase for 12-hour clock times. Even though the 24-hour clock is the official clock used in France, you might have occasions when you want to tell someone the time using the 12-hour clock. If someone asks you what time it is right now, whether it's morning or evening will be understood. However, if you're indicating the time of something to occur in the future, you might add the following phrases:
    • "Du matin" (before noon): "Il est neuf heures et demie du matin." (It is 9:30 a.m.)
    • "De l'après-midi (from noon until about 6:00 p.m.): "Il est cinq heures de l'après-midi." (It's 5:00 in the afternoon.)
    • "Du soir" (from 6:00 p.m. until midnight): "Il est huit heures dix du soir." (It's 8:10 p.m.)
  5. Add the word "pile" when the time is exactly on the hour. The word "pile" (PEEL) is used the same way you might say "on the dot" or "sharp" in English. Use it to add some character to your speech when you're telling someone the time, or if you want to express more adamantly when something starts.
    • For example, you might say "il est neuf heures pile" (it's 9 o'clock on the dot) or "le cours commence à dix heures pile" (the class starts at 10 o'clock sharp).

Minutes

  1. Use the numbers 1-59 for minutes. If you had to brush up on your numbers for the hours, you should be pretty solid on at least the first 24 of these. The rest follow the same formula — add the word for the single unit onto the word for the tens unit.
    • For example, if you want to say it's 9:52, use the word for 50 (cinquante) plus the word for 2 (deux) and say "il est neuf heures cinquante-deux."
    • You can give approximate times in French just as you would in English, so it's no big deal if you forget a number word. If it's 9:52, you could either say "il est environ dix heures" or "Il est presque dix heures." (it's almost 10 o´clock)
  2. Add minutes after the hour. After the word "heures," simply say the number of minutes. You don't need to specify that the number refers to minutes — just use the number.
    • For example, if it's 10:20, you would say "il est dix heures vingt."
  3. Alternate with "quart" and "demie" for 15 and 30 past the hour. Just as in English, in French you can say it's a quarter past or half-past an hour. In French, you do this by adding the word "et" in front of the fraction word ("quart" for quarter, "demie" for half).
    • For example, if it's 11:30, you would say "Il est onze heures et demie."
    • The official grammar rule is that you only use these shorthand fraction words until noon. At 1 p.m. or 13h00, when you roll into the 24-hour clock, you use the number words "quinze" (15) and "trente" (30). However, native French speakers often use these words at any time.
  4. Subtract minutes after "demie" with "moins." Once it's half-past, the French commonly subtract minutes from the hour it will be rather than adding minutes to the current hour, just as in English you might say it's "10 to 9." After the word "heures," say "moins" followed by the number of minutes.
    • This is particularly helpful if you're just learning French and have a hard time remembering all the number words. For example, if it's 8:50, you could say "il est neuf heures moins dix" instead of "il est huit heures cinquante."
    • If you want to say it's a quarter till, or 45 minutes past the hour, you can also use "moins le quart." Since you're subtracting, remember to go up an hour. For example, 9:45 would be "dix heures moins le quart" or "neuf heures quarante-cinq." As with "quart" and "demie," the official grammar rule is that you don't use this phrase after noon with the 24-hour clock.

Time-Related Words and Phrases

  1. Ask "Quelle heure est-il ?"if you want to know what time it is. This is a relatively formal way to ask the time, but if you're talking to a stranger, it's a safe phrase to use. In casual conversation, especially among people around the same age, you'll also hear "Il est quelle heure ?"
    • If you're asking a stranger the time and want to be extra polite, you might also ask, "Auriez-vous l'heure, s'il vous plaît ?" (Would you tell me the time, please?)
  2. Use "à quelle heure" to ask about a specific time. Use this phrase if you want to find out when something starts, how late a shop or restaurant is open, or when something is scheduled. When answering, use "à" before the time.
    • For example, if a friend has asked you to watch a movie with them, you might ask "à quelle heure commence le film ?" (What time does the movie start?) Your friend might reply "le film commence à vingt heures" (the movie starts at 20:00 or 8:00 p.m.), or simply, "à vingt heures."
  3. Pick up words and phrases for time concepts. If someone tells you the time when you ask, you can simply say "merci" and be on your way, but you might want to comment on the time in some way. The following words and phrases help you put the time in context:
    • "Tôt" (TOH) means "early." For example, you might say "Il est cinq heures ? Je me suis réveillé très tôt, ce matin!" (It's 5 a.m.? I woke up very early this morning!)
    • "En avance" (AHN AHVAHNS) also means "early," but more in the sense of being too early for something, or something happening too soon. For example, you might say "Je ne suis jamais en avance à l'école" (I am never early to school.)
    • "Tard" (TAHR) means "late." For example, you might say "Il est vingt-trois heures ? Il est tard, je vais dormir." (It's 11:00 p.m.? It's late, I'm going to bed.)
    • "En retard" (AHN REH-TAHR) means "running late." For example, you might say "J'étais en retard pour notre rendez-vous." (I was running late for our date.)

Tips

  • Write the time in French using the letter "h" rather than a colon (and remember to use 24-hour time). For example, 2:15 p.m. would be "14h15." You can also use a period instead of the letter "h," as in "14.15."
  • In general, the fastest way to learn French is to be surrounded by French people frequently speaking the language around you.

Warnings

  • The pronunciation guides in this article are approximate. To understand exactly how words are pronounced, listen to a native speaker.
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