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Time is a noun with a number of meanings. In some senses it is countable, and in others it is uncountable. A good learner’s dictionary will give you its many meanings and tell you whether it is countable or uncountable.

Time: seconds, minutes, hours, years

We use time to refer to what is measured in seconds, minutes, hours and years as a whole. In this sense it is uncountable:

How much time do we have for this project?

Children nowadays spend more time watching TV than playing.

Not: … spend more times

In some expressions time is countable:

At a time in our history when technology is developing so fast, we can’t afford not to invest in Information Technology.

I haven’t seen Brian for a long time.

Time: talking about clock or calendar time

When we talk about specific clock times, time is countable. We do not say hour:

What time is it now?

Not: What hour is it?

Is this a bad time to phone?

Is the swimming pool open at that time?

Not: … at that hour?

We use in …’s time to say when something will happen:

I’ll be finished college in three months’ time.

I’ve ordered a new computer and it’ll be here in a week’s time.

On time and in time

We use on time to talk about timetabled events. If something is on time, it means that it is at the scheduled time. We often use right on time or, more informally, dead on time or bang on time, for emphasis:

The trains are usually on time. (They arrive at the scheduled times, not early or late.)

A:

It’s quarter to two. We’d better get back for the meeting.

B:

Don’t worry. These meetings never start on time.

I was lucky. The flight to Chicago arrived right on time, so I got my connection.

We use in time to say we are not late and have enough time to do something. We use it with for plus a noun, or with a verb in the to-infinitive form:

If we leave here at about ten, we should arrive at the coast in time for lunch.

I hope to be there in time to see you before lunch. (early enough to have time to see you before lunch)

We often use the phrase just in time to emphasise that we have time to do something but are almost too late:

You’re just in time for lunch!

Compare

The stadium must be completed on time.

The stadium must be completed in time for the Olympics.

It must be completed according to the schedule.

It must be completed with time to spare before the start of the Olympics.

Time: referring to past events

We often use expressions with time to refer to past events (the time, the time that, the time when):

Remember the time your phone went off at Olivia and John’s wedding?

I’ll never forget the time that we all dressed up as clowns for Elaine’s party.

One time when I was driving home, I saw a strange guy hitchhiking.

Children’s stories often begin with Once upon a time:

Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Cinderella …

Telling the time

Asking the time

We can ask about the time in different ways:

What time is it, please?

What’s the time, please, Mark?

What time does the meeting start?

Could you tell me the time, please? (more formal)

At what time does the concert begin? (formal and literary style)

What time do you make it? (informal)

Have you got the time, please?

Saying the time

When we talk about time on a clock, we use am to refer to times between 12.00 in the night and 11.59 in the day and we use pm to refer to times between 12.00 in the day and 11.59 in the night:

I never get up before 10 am.

We weren’t home until 1.00 am.

It was 7.00 pm before the plane took off.

We usually have a lunch break at 12.30 pm.

9.00 nine o’clock

9.05 five past nine or nine oh five

9.10 ten past nine or nine ten

9.15 quarter past nine or nine fifteen

9.20 twenty past nine or nine twenty

9.25 twenty-five past nine or nine twenty-five

9.30 half past nine or nine thirty

9.35 twenty-five to ten or nine thirty-five

9.40 twenty to ten or nine forty

9.45 quarter to ten or nine forty-five

9.50 ten to ten or nine fifty

9.55 five to ten or nine fifty-five

10.00 ten o’clock

We only use o’clock for the hour:

It’s ten o’clock.

Not: It’s quarter past ten o’clock.

For times outside five-minute intervals, we say minutes past or minutes to:

9.01 one minute past nine

9.03 three minutes past nine

9.36 twenty-four minutes to ten

9.58 two minutes to ten

We also use the twenty-four-hour clock, especially in formal writing and in timetables:

The 24-hour clock

am and pm

09.00

9.00 am

11.45

11.45 am

13.15

1.15 pm

22.50

10.50 pm

[13.00]

At thirteen hundred (hours), a bus will collect passengers from the front of the hotel.

[18.40]

The meeting ended at eighteen forty.

Short ways of saying the time

In informal situations, we often drop o’clock:

I usually get up at seven and I have to be at work by nine. (= I usually get up at seven o’clock and I have to be at work by nine o’clock.)

When the speaker and the listener both know the hour, they may not need to say it:

A:

Is it quarter past yet?

B:

No, it’s only ten past. (For example, if A and B know that the hour is six, quarter past means quarter past six and ten past means ten past six.)

[A and B are going to the cinema to see a film that they know begins at eight o’clock. Their friend Karen is collecting them at 7.40.]

A:

What time is Karen picking us up?

B:

At twenty to.

Spoken English:

In informal speaking, we can leave out past in half past:

A:

What time is it?

B:

Half two.

Warning:

This means 2.30, not 1.30.

(“Time” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press. Need grammar practice? Try English Grammar Today with Workbook.)
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