Build Your French Vocabulary: How to Tell Time in French

French Vocabulary: How to Tell Time in FrenchFor our last French vocabulary lesson, tutor Carol Beth L. taught us numbers, counting, and basic math. Now, it’s time to put that knowledge to work with this lesson on telling time in French…

So, are you confident with your numbers in French yet? Telling time is a wonderful way to practice – and is very helpful in everyday life! Let’s start with a few basic words and phrases:

Heure hour
L’heure the time
Quelle heure est-il? What time is it?
(Say: Kel Ur [like the city] ay-teel)
Il est ______ heures. It is ___ o’clock.
Midi noon (12pm)
Minuit [say: mee noo ee] midnight (12am)

In the question “Quelle heure est-il,” for the purposes of pronunciation, it is helpful to be aware of the concept of the liaison in French. When one word begins with a vowel sound, but the preceding word ends with a silent consonant, that consonant is pronounced almost as if it were the first letter of the next word. This is why the “t” in “est” is pronounced the way it is – but the “s,” which is also normally silent, is not.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Susie: Quelle heure est-il? What time is it?
Alain: Il est 9 (neuf) heures. It is 9 o’clock.

Alain: Quelle heure est-il? What time is it?
Susie: Il est midi. Allons manger! It is noon. Let’s go eat!

In France, it is important to realize that the people you are speaking to will measure time on the 24-hour clock, often referred to as military time in the United States. So for any hour in the afternoon or evening, you will need to add 12 to the number we usually use for the hour in the United States:

13:00 = 1pm
14:00 = 2pm
15:00 = 3pm
16:00 = 4pm
17:00 = 5pm
18:00 = 6pm
19:00 = 7pm
20:00 = 8pm
21:00 = 9pm
22:00 = 10pm
23:00 = 11pm

Here are a few examples of how this would be used in context:

Il est 13 (treize) heures. (It is 1:00 in the afternoon. Literally: It is 13 o’clock.)
Il est 18 (dix-huit) heures. (It is 6:00 in the evening. Literally: It is 18 o’clock.)

So what about the times in between? Here, a little more vocabulary will help us out:

______ heures et quart a quarter past ______
______ heures et demie half past ______
______ heures moins le quart a quarter to ______

Again, let’s see this in context:

1) Il est minuit moins le quart. (It’s a quarter to midnight. Or equivalently: It’s 11:45pm.)
2) Il est 15 (quinze) heures et demie. (It’s a quarter past three in the afternoon. Or equivalently: It’s 3:15pm.)
3) Il est 7 (sept) heures et quart. (It’s a quarter past seven in the morning. Or equivalently: It’s 7:15am.)

Note that in the French version, “in the morning” or “in the afternoon” (indicated in the English translation) is implied because they use the 24-hour clock. These three vocabulary terms – “et quart,” “et demie,” and “moins le quart” – often require more practice for American students than the style that comes next, but they are used relatively often.

You may wish to focus on practicing telling time using this format until it feels natural to you before moving on. Try looking at a clock at random times throughout the day and telling the time according to the nearest quarter-hour. Or if you have a “will return at” sign with a moveable clock on it, have a friend show you random times of their choosing, and give them the time (again, to the nearest quarter-hour) in French. You or a friend can also draw clocks with desirable times on them.

So what if you need to be more precise than telling time to the quarter-hour? In English, we might say “It’s ten-oh-three,” or “It’s eleven fifty-seven.” In French, you can do almost the same thing:

Il est dix heures trois. (It’s 10:03 am.)
Il est onze heures cinquante-sept. (It’s 11:57 am.)
Il est dix-sept heures vingt-neuf. (It’s 5:29 pm.)
Il est midi quarante-deux. (It’s 12:42 pm.)

In these and similar cases, be sure to include the word “heures” in your sentence between the hour and the minutes. We do not include it in English, but it is important in French.

Now, you have several ways to tell time in French. If you recently learned to count in French, it is also an excellent way to practice your numbers. Practice your French vocabulary consistently and telling time – and numbers – will become second nature.

For more help learning to speak French, why not try studying with a private tutor? Whether you’re preparing to travel abroad or just need help getting your grades up, your French tutor can give you the one-on-one attention you need to reach your goals. Search for a tutor now!


Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!




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