Real World English – Date and time

Posted by on December 12, 2016

Real World English

Welcome to the fourth in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context. In the fourth video Ed looks at the differences between the way US and UK speakers write dates and times.

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One of the best things about being an English teacher is meeting people from all over the world and making friends with so many different people.

However, sometimes having friends from different places can be confusing, particularly when it comes to time. For example, I recently received an email from a Japanese friend telling me he was visiting London on 4/3/2017 and asking if I’d like to meet for dinner.

This was great, I was excited to meet my friend but I had a problem. When exactly was he coming?  For me, the date meant the 4th of March but I knew my friend studied English in the USA, so he could mean the 3rd of April.

This is a key difference between British and American English. In Britain, the date is written day, month, year but in the USA, they put the month first and then the day.

If you want to avoid confusion, the best thing to do is to write the date in full. So, if my friend had written 4th March, there would be no confusion. In international English, this is probably the best strategy.

The British and Americans also tell the time differently. A British person would say 9.15 as ‘a quarter past nine’, whereas an American would say ‘a quarter after nine’. And for 8.45, a British person would say ‘a quarter to nine’ whereas an American would say ‘a quarter of nine’. This can be very confusing if you don’t know that they have the same meaning. Indeed, UK and US speakers even use different expressions to talk about it, because an American speaker would say not ‘tell the time‘ but ‘tell time‘.

So what should you say? When using English internationally, the most important thing is to be clear, so the best thing to say is ‘eight forty five’ and ‘nine fifteen’. Both these forms are used in the UK and USA, so everyone will understand. And, if someone tells you the time and you don’t understand, just ask.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time. You can catch up on the previous videos and posts, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Comments (1)
  • Differences had to abound between American and British English. But what should NOT happen is the slavish adoption of one by the other… I speak specifically of ‘half past the hour’ ‘quarter past the hour’ which, I learn is American. It tells you the time – if you can see a clock, or you have reason to believe it is 8 or 9 or 10 o’clock. It is totally useless to the aged who have impaired vision, or no clocks to tell time by. The standard British English is ‘quarter past four’, ‘half past four’ or ‘quarter to four’… Unfortunately, the American style has been adopted by that great former arbiter of good English, BBC World Service (the part that I get to hear). Not all ‘progress’ is good.

    Posted by Olad Imejee on 12th December, 2016
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