Asking for The Time
Before we can talk about expressing time, we have to talk about asking for the current time. There are three main ways to ask for the current time:
Wie spät ist es? (literally: how late is it?)
Wieviel Uhr haben wir? (literally: what time do we have?)
Wieviel Uhr ist es? (What time is it?)
And if you are politely asking a stranger on the street for the time:
Entschuldigen Sie, können sie mir bitte sagen, wieviel Uhr es ist?
Excuse me, can you tell me the time please?
Enschuldigen Sie bitte, wie viel Uhr haben wir?
Excuse me please, what time is it?
Ok now that we are on the same page, we can dive directly into expressing the time in German.
Of course there are casual and formal ways to express the current time. In informal German, you will often hear things like a quarter to and half past. (there is both a half past and “half before” in German).
Germans basically use 10,20,30 and 40 minutes to describe time in a casual way (we will look at this later)
The Full Hour
If you are talking about the full hour, you have to use the German equivalent for “o’clock”, which is Uhr. As in English, you speak the number and add Uhr after it:
Ein Uhr – 1 Uhr – 1 o’clock
Fünf Uhr – 5 Uhr – 5 o’clock
Acht Uhr – 8 Uhr – 8 o’clock
Zwei Uhr – 2 Uhr – 2 o’clock
As you can see this is similar to English and therefore pretty easy. Let’s have a look at how you would answer if someone is asking you for the time.
Excuse me, what time is it?
Entschuldigen Sie bitte, wie spät ist es?
It is 7 o’clock.
Es ist 7 Uhr.
So the answer follows the structure “Es ist [Number] Uhr”. Pretty simple. Germans usually use the 12 hour clock if it isn’t a formal conversation, or you are not making an appointment.
The exact time in German follows the same pattern as the full hour. Firstly you mention the hours, followed by Uhr, and lastly you mention the minutes. This can happen in 12 or 24hour format, it really doesn’t matter which format you use. Sometimes Germans will use the word und (=and) between Uhr and the minutes and mention the word Minuten after the numer of minutes., so don’t get confused by that.
Let’s look at some examples to understand both forms:
1:55 – 1Uhr 55 – 1Uhr und 55 Minuten
3:43 – 3Uhr 43 – 3Uhr und 43 Minuten
5:24 – 5Uhr 24 – 5Uhr und 24 Minuten
8:17 – 8Uhr 17 – 8Uhr und 17 Minuten
When deciding which form you would like to use, it really comes down to your own preferences. Germans usually like to use the first one more often, since its quicker and requires less words. (We like to be efficient)
A Quarter, Half Past, And Other Things
In English we are able to say: It’s a quarter past eight and in German, we are able to do the same.
A quarter translates to ein Viertel so in German we say:
Es ist Viertel nach acht (8).
It’s a quarter past eight.
There is another way to say this, which is mainly used in the South of Germany. For a quarter past eight, you would say: (only in the South)
Es ist viertel neun (9).
It is a quarter past eight.
You can imagine this as: a quarter of the ninth hour has passed. Don’t worry if this confuses you right now. For now, focus on the word “nach” and “vor”, to determine what time is being talked about.
So now that we learned how to say this, let’s look at how we would say: a quarter to eleven.
If you understood the previous example, this will be a piece of cake for you.
We only have to change one small thing. We will switch the word nach, which literally translates to after, with vor, which literally translates to before.
Es ist Viertel vor elf. (11)
It is a quarter to eleven.
Ok, this isn’t hard. Let’s look at how the people in the South of Germany would say it.
Es ist drei viertel elf (11).
It is a quarter to eleven.
As you can see, in the South, we just keep adding quarters, until we would reach eleven. (drei viertel = three quarters).
Let’s look at some more examples so that you understand the difference between the North and the South.
Es ist Viertel vor zwölf (12).
It is a quarter to twelve.
Es ist Viertel nach sieben (7).
It is a quarter past seven.
Es ist viertel sieben (7).
It is a quarter past six.
Es ist Viertel vor zehn (10).
It is a quarter to ten.
Es ist drei viertel neun (9).
It is a quarter to nine.
When writing down the time like this, you have to pay attention to capitalization. If you use the standard way to tell the time with “Viertel nach” and “Viertel vor”, “Viertel” will be capitalized since it is used as a noun.
If you want to write down the time using the other form, you will not capitalize the word “viertel” because it is used as a “Zahlwort” (literally number word). You can find more information about this on the website of the German Duden. “Viertel” “viertel”
Germans Don’t Use Half Past
Now that we know about quarters, we are ready to take a look at how Germans phrase “half past”.
In German, we do it exactly the other way around. We don’t say half past, we say just halb (=half) but we mean “half to”.
If you want to say half past, you only need two things, the number of the next hour, and the word halb.
Let’s look at some examples:
It is half past twelve.
Es ist halb eins (1).
It is half past two.
Es ist halb drei (3).
It is half past eight.
Es ist halb neun (9).
Pretty easy right? This is the same for all parts of Germany. We don’t have something like “zwei viertel neun”. So people in the South of Germany use only “viertel” and “drei viertel” and in between they say halb.
Other Things We Use in Germany
On top of “half past” and “a quarter” it is common practice in German to use “5/10/20minutes past/before”
This works the same way as “Viertel vor” or “Viertel nach”. You just have to substitute “Viertel” by the number which you want to use.
It is ten minutes past three.
Es ist zehn nach drei
It is twenty minutes past one.
Es ist zwanzig nach eins.
It is five minutes past two.
Es ist fünf nach zwei.
It is twenty minutes to four.
Es ist zwanzig vor vier.
It is ten minutes to ten.
Es ist zehn vor zehn.
In informal conversations you will also often hear the term “kurz vor” or “kurz nach” (literally shortly before/after). This can mean anything between ten minutes to/past to the full hour, but it usually gets used if it is around 5minutes to the full hour.
How to Talk about Any Time of The Day
You can also use this technique to talk about the exact time of the day. To do this, you will have to substitute 5/10/20 by the exact amount of minutes.
It is seventeen minutes past one.
Es ist siebzehn nach eins.
It is seven minutes past eight.
Es ist sieben nach acht.
It is totally fine if you use this way, and everyone in Germany will understand you, but we usually use the way that we talked about in the beginning, using Uhr.
If you are having a more formal conversation, or you are talking about something (like an appointment), that needs you to specify the exact time, you would rather use the 24hout clock instead of the twelve hour clock.
If you use this way, you can’t use “a quarter past”, “half past”, or “5/10/20 past”. You will always have to use Uhr in this case.
Let’s look at some examples:
It is half past one.
Es ist dreizehn Uhr dreißig.
It is twenty minutes past four.
Es ist sechzehn Uhr zwanzig.
It is nineteen minutes to eight.
Es ist zwanzig Uhr einundvierzig.
How to Describe Specific Times of The Day.
Of course we also have things like the afternoon in German, so to wrap this up, I want to give you an overview about some words that we use to describe some special times of the day.
Der Morgen – the morning
Der Mittag – noon
Der Abend – the evening
Die Nacht – the night
Der Vormittag – the time between early in the morning and noon
Der Nachmittag – the afternoon
spät – late
früh – early