It goes without saying that knowing how to tell time in French is a fundamental part of becoming fluent. After all, so many things in our daily lives revolve around time such as work, school, the bus, going to see a film and countless others. If you know how to tell time in English (or whatever your native language is) then learning how to do it all in French should be a piece of cake.
As you have probably already learned, a word in one language can sometimes be translated by multiple in another language. This just so happens to be the case with the word “time” in English. Let’s take a brief look at this before diving into how to tell time in French.
Different ways to say the word time in French
Simply put, there are three main words used to describe time in French, only one of which is relevant to us here. The three words are as follows.
- Le temps
- La fois
In case you didn’t already know, l’heure is the one that is relevant to us here because it’s the only one that’s used when telling time.
Using Le temps
Le temps is used when you’re talking about a period of time. As always, this is best explained through context. Here are some examples to help you get a handle on how to use le temps.
Prends ton temps – Take your time
J’ai mis du temps à m’y habituer – It took me a while to get used to it (literally – I put some time to get used to it)
Il a passé du temps à Paris – He spent some time in Paris
On doit laisser le temps agir – We must give it the time needed (literally – We must let the time act)
Using la fois
La fois is used to when talking about an occurrence or instance. Think of it like how we say in English, “That time when I…”. Here are some examples.
Je parle à mes parents deux fois par semaine – I speak to my parents twice (two times) a week
On se verra la prochaine fois – We’ll see each other next time
Je le ferai une autre fois – I’ll do it another time
Je me souviens d’une fois où mon cousin est venu me voir – I remember one time when my cousin came to see me
Using l'heure to tell time in french
We’ve already gone over that l’heure is used when telling time in French, but what does it mean? L’heure, when literally translated, means “hour” (le = the, heure = hour), but can be thought of as “o’clock” when speaking about time. The “L” gets removed when telling time and leaves just the word heure. The big thing to remember here is that unlike English where saying “o’clock” is often optional, using heure in French is mandatory.
Although heure can be thought of as the equivalent to “o’clock” it’s used just a little bit differently. in English “o’clock” is typically only used on the hour (1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, etc…) Heure is used in every situation where you need to tell time (even if it’s not on the hour).
Deux heures – 2 o’clock
Une heure – 1 o’clock
Quatre heures dix – 4:10
Sept heures treize – 7:13
We’ll go over more how to formulate time in French in just a little bit, for now the only thing you need to know is that heure becomes heures for any number after 1. When you think about it it makes sense because anything after 1 contains “multiple hours”.
Using the 24-hour click to tell time in French
Depending on where you are from you may or may not be familiar with the 24-hour clock as a way to tell time. In French it’s exceptionally common and should be mastered if you want to be able to tell time confidently.
If you are unaware of what the 24-hour clock is and how to use it, here is a quick explanation..
The 24-hour clock counts time the same way as the 12-hour clock except instead of rolling back to 1 o’clock after 12 PM it proceeds onto 13, 14, 15 all the way up until 24. This means that if you wanted to say 3:00 PM you would use 15:00 (no need to add AM or PM).
If you want to convert a time from the 12-hour clock to the 24-hour clock you just have to add 12 to it (provided it’s a time that would normally be after 12 PM, anything before then stays the same). This means that if you wanted to say 6:00 PM you would add 12 to get 18:00. Likewise if there is a time that’s already using the 24-hour clock and you are having difficulty interpreting it just subtract 12. This means that 16:00 becomes 4:00 PM.
The only other thing to know about the 24-hour clock is that although there are 24 hours in a day there is no 24:00. Once you reach midnight it rolls down to 0. That means that 11:00 PM is 23:00 whereas 12 AM is written as 00:00.
Using the 12-hour clock to tell time in French
Learning how to interpret the 24-hour clock when telling time in French is absolutely essential to your overall French-language progress. However, if you don’t want to use it yourself you don’t technically have to.
You can simply use du matin (in the morning) to say AM and both de l’après-midi (in the afternoon) and du soir (in the evening) to say PM. De l’après-midi is used from 12 PM up until about 5 or 6 and du soir can be used for the remainder of the day up until midnight.
Although the word nuit means night in French there is no equivalent to “at night” when telling time. This means that even if it’s 11:00 PM you would say onze heures du soir.
Formulating time in French
Formulating time in French is just as easy as it is in English. The first way to do this is to simply write out the time with the full numbers. As you’ll see in the examples below, if you are telling someone what time it is right now you start with Il est.. just like how in English you start with “It is…”
Il est quatre heures vingt – It is 4:20
Il est dix-neuf heures trente-deux – It is 7:32 PM
Il est une heure – It’s 1:00
Il est cinq heures trente – It’s 5:30
Just in case it wasn’t clear, it should be noted that when telling time in French you HAVE to use il est. You cannot under any circumstance say elle est or c’est. The word heure is technically feminine but despite this doesn’t matter to us here. If it helps you to understand it just think of it in the same way you would “It” in the phrase “It’s raining” (Il pleut) or “It’s hot out” (Il fait chaud). In these examples the word “It” (or Il) isn’t talking about anything specific. This “it” is called an impersonal pronoun, but knowing this won’t help you understand it any better.
The other way of formulating time in French is by putting “h” (abbreviation of heures) in place of the : (colon). There really isn’t much more to say about this as that’s all there is to it.
Il est 6h00 – It’s 6:00
Il est 9h10 – It’s 9:10
Il est 8h56 – It is 8:56
Il est 2h03 – It is 2:03
Shortcuts for telling time in French
If you’ve gotten this far then you know almost everything that you need to know surrounding how to tell time in French. The only things left to go over are some shortcuts that you can use for certain “milestones” throughout any given hour. There are fortunately only a handful of these that you need to learn. Take a look at them below.
…et quart – 15 on the hour
…moins le quart – 45 on the hour *
Midi – Noon
…et demie – 30 on the hour
Minuit – Midnight
* Moins le quart means “minus the quarter” (four 15-minute quarters in an hour) when literally translated which means that if you wanted to say 10h45 you would say onze heures moins le quart (11 o’clock minus the quarter).
Important note regarding time shortcuts
The above time “shortcuts” are only used when you are using the 12-hour clock. If you are using the 24-hour clock then you have to say everything the “normal” way. This means that 15h30 has to be said quinze heures trente or trois heures et demie. Trois heures trente works as well.
The only examples that could potentially be seen as exceptions are midi and minuit. You can say minuit trente (12:30 AM) but not minuit et demie. Let’s look at some examples to help you understand this better.
Il est neuf heures et quart – It’s 9:15 AM / 9:15 PM ✓
Il est vingt-et-une heures quinze – It’s 9:15 PM ✓
Il est vingt-et-une heures et quart – It’s 9:15 PM X
Il est une heure et demie – It is 1:30 AM / PM ✓
Il est treize heures trente – It is 1:30 PM ✓
Il est treize heures et demie – It is 1:30 PM X
This isn’t said to confuse you, but there are times when you will hear someone use one of the “milestones” with the 24-hour clock. Grammatically speaking it’s incorrect but as we are all aware, just because you are a native speaker doesn’t mean that you know every grammar rule perfectly.
The best advice in this situation would be to follow the rules above, but to not be surprised if you hear a native speaker use it incorrectly.
At this point you show know everything you need to know about how to tell time in French. If you already know your French numbers then adapting them to time shouldn’t be too difficult. If you are interested in learning other parts of the French language then check out the other articles in our blog.