Telling time

English has two ways of telling time: five past (hour), ten past, (a) quarter past etc and (hour) oh-five, ten, fifteen etc. Other languages only use the hour:minute method, in various ways. For example, Korean uses ‘yol shi ship bun’ for (10 hours, 10 minutes). (Korean has two numbering systems – one is used with hours and the other with minutes; it’s a long story.)

In last week’s weekly test, the listening test was an interview with the chimpanzee researcher Dr Jane Goodall (or more likely an actress playing her). A questioner asks her what a typical day in Africa is for her. She starts: ‘I get up at quarter to seven’. The students had to write down the time, and there was an extraordinary range of answers. I’m currently teaching upper-intermediate. I know that ‘telling time’ is covered at lower levels, the upper-intermediate book doesn’t say anything about it, and I’ve never thought to mention it.

The answers were, in order of precision:
6:45 (two students); 6:45 a q to 7 o; quarter to 7
quater 7 (I initially gave one mark, then I realised that the student might have meant ‘quarter past 7’ and gave half a mark instead)
7:00 (three students); 4:00 crossed out replaced by 7:00
6:20  (I’m not sure how the student produce this answer. Coincidentally, it is the time I get up here; my day is not spent following chimpanzees)
7:45 (sort of half right, but I reluctantly gave no mark)
4:07 (the student presumably heard ‘quarter’ as ‘four’ and ‘to’ as ‘oh’

For practical purposes in real life, there’s probably not a lot of difference between 6:40 and quarter to seven, and even six twenty and seven o’clock are not unreasonable approximations, unless you have to catch a particular train, which I do and Dr Goodall doesn’t.

Looking back at my childhood, I seem to remember that we used the ‘five-past’ method. Possibly because of the spread of digital clocks, maybe people use the ‘oh-five’ method more. Almost certainly, the decline of that method has been hastened by the increase in the use of digital clocks. On reflection, I realised that I say hour:minute in the classroom even in the second half of the hour, even though we’ve got an analogue clock on the wall. Maybe I fell into that habit while living in Korea. I must make an effort to use both, because students will encounter them.

Google Ngrams reports that the use of ‘quarter to’ and ‘quarter past’ has been declining since about 1850s. Intriguingly, ‘quarter to’ is used considerable more than ‘quarter past’, even though both times occur just as often. And that’s not due the use of the alternative ‘quarter after’; that and ‘quarter past’ added together are still used far less than ‘quarter to’.


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