Measuring time in the US and UK

When I was fielding comments about the insanities involved in figuring out what I weigh in the U.K., I caught myself just before I wrote that at least we all measure time the same way.

Are you sure? I asked my more-than-usually bewildered self. I imagined someone jumping out the magic surge of the internet to tell me that yes, the hour has sixty minutes everywhere but the minutes are longer in the U.S. Why there? Because everything’s bigger in the U.S. Or that’s what people in Britain tell me. Houses, rooms, scones, the spaces in our parking lots. People. So wouldn’t it be just like us to want a longer minute?

It might, but as far as I know the minute really is the same everywhere. And no, Americans don’t all live in mansions any more than the British all live in castles, although the scones and the parking spaces really are bigger. And some of the rooms and houses. I’m not sure about the people.

Irrelevant photo: freezing fog on Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: freezing fog on Davidstow Moor.

What were we talking about?

My point about time is that we may measure it the same way, but someone always finds a way to complicate things. Usually me. A few years ago, I was working out a time to pick up M. for—I think—a movie.

“A quarter of,” I suggested.

“What does that even mean?” he said.

“A quarter of six.”

Then I realized he wasn’t asking about the hour, he was asking about the quarter of part. I tried translations.

“Five forty-five? A quarter to? Fifteen minutes to six?”

He shook his head.

“But what, grammatically, does it even mean?”

Well, it means a quarter of, obviously, and I had to say the phrase one more time to realize that it doesn’t, but any sort of logic, mean a thing. A quarter of what? Of nothing. It’s just what we say. We know what it means, so what’s your problem?

On the other hand, the British say “half six.” That’s three, right? No, that’s six-thirty. What, grammatically, does that even mean? About as much as a quarter of. But if you’ve grown up with it, it makes all kinds of sense.

Mercifully, no one’s come along to divide the traditional clock into a more rational system—ten hours, 100 minutes. You know, something easier to calculate with. Because some of us would convert to the new system and some of us wouldn’t and we’d all fight about it, and we’re having enough trouble as it is.

42 thoughts on “Measuring time in the US and UK

  1. Take solace in the fact that it appears no one on either side of the pond can agree on when dinner or supper is, no matter how you tell the time. Here, I live 25 minutes from work and most everything of interest is 45 minutes from here. I think you get the better deal with a pint! And everyone is sure that a firkin is a southerner doing something naughty. Suspenders? We keep those above the waist. Jumpers? Here we call the police when we see a jumper, it keeps the sidewalks cleaner. All that said, I’d love to have a bacon butty just now. Speaking of time, at least you know where Greenwhich is. On this side of the pond we don’t even know that is the beginning of time, so to speak, never mind where it is. And it’s only 6 hours from here ;)

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  2. This is so true! I have a friend from London who says the time in the ways you’ve mentioned and I swear I need to ask her to repeat herself since I don’t understand! It does sound lovelier however in my opinion to say ‘ a quarter of six’ than ‘5:45’ but my brain can’t process it quickly enough!
    Ps: my apartment’s kitchen and bathroom are so tiny that anyone would be shocked by their dimensions! A girl can dream of a castle one day!
    Have a lovely Tuesday !
    Lia

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  3. You make a good point about ‘half six’ – I’d never thought about it before moving to the mainland! In Ireland, that would be 6.30. In Germany (and probably most other countries), half six would be 5.30 – confusing!

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      • Yeah, going over there, up there, down there, and elsewhere. Going downtown to be uptown and going uptown to be downtown. You can go uphill while going down the lane. You can go east on the west bypass. You can go crazy if you never go any where. You can go crazy a lot of different ways but you are never there if you think you are. You can go places and never leave town. You can go down the toilet while trying to climb the ladder. You can go inside or outside but never outside in. My boss goes in circles all the time and never leaves his chair. You can go till the cows come home or to the wee hours of the night but you can never go until tomorrow. I’ve always looked carefully at maps to find ‘the wee hours’ but there are no hours there at all, neither big nor small, just minutes and seconds is all I find.

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  4. Well,
    Here in Germany, in the southern parts, we have something like “ein viertel sechs” [ a quarter six]. I’m never sure what that means, “a quarter to six” or “a quarter past 5”. Actually it’s the latter. Confusion reigns. ;)
    Have a great one,
    Pit

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  5. The thing that makes me nuts about telling time is 12AM and 12PM. How can it make ANY sense ANYwhere to go 11.58PM, 11.59PM, 12.00AM????? Especially when the next AM is 00.01. So I use noon and midnight, but that feels like a cop-out, and I wish we’d all just switch to the 24-hour clock and be done with it.

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    • That’s exactly the kind of minutiae that fills a copy editor’s head. Although a lot of it has fallen out since I retired. Memory insists that noon and midnight are correct, not 12 a.m. or p.m., although I wouldn’t urge anybody to bet a whole lot of money on that.

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  6. What makes it more confusing to me is speaking to my Russian neighbour. In Russian, the time system is similar to the English one, but having forgotten its specifics, I eventually give up and say it in English. In Bulgarian it is nice and easy, we use the actual numbers and “half”, that is all. On another note, I envy the Americans for the large parking spaces. The ones here are so stingy… But it is a smaller country, some will argue, so no space for too many cars!

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    • The train schedules here use military time–the twenty-four hour clock–and I regularly catch myself just as I’m about to book a 19:01 train that I’m thinking will leave at 9:01 pm. It’s been almost eight years now. How long’s it gonna be before I understand, in my bones, how this works?

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  7. It’s just the way we Brits abbreviate stuff. Half six has gone from ‘half of one hour past six of the clock’ (or six o’clock as we know now) through ‘half past six’ to simply ‘half six’. We would also say ‘quarter to’ or ‘quarter past’ rather than ‘quarter of’ and it’s only geeks, police and legal people that would say 18:45 instead of quarter to seven. Imagine a romantic phone call that ends with “I’ll see you at 19:15!”

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    • …and it’s merciful that romantic phone calls don’t end that way, because anyone brought up the way I was, on a twelve-hour clock, would be likely to show up at 7:15, decide they’d been stood up, and there would go the romance, right out the window.

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  8. Ha! I love this post. My mother says “thirt” for half past. As in, “See you at twelve thirt for lunch!”

    She swears it’s an Australian thing, I think she’s deliberately confusing me. How hard can it be to add the ‘y’?!

    Lovely to be reading your posts again, I’d forgotten how much fun your writing is to read.

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