Time Expressions in English

Jim   Monday, April 21, 2003, 04:14 GMT
There are a different ways of telling the time, saying the date, talking about the week, etc. in English. How do time expressions in English differ from those in other languages? How do they differ between dialects of English? What should a student of English as a second language be aware of? What potential for confusion does this cause?

I tend to use expressions like "quarter past two", "quarter to ten", "half past eight", "twenty-five to one", "ten past nine", etc. more often than "two fifteen", "nine forty-five", "eight thirty", "one thirty-five", "nine ten", etc. The former expressions are pretty common in English but can be difficult for learners. In North America they often tend to use "after" instead of "past". Which do you use?

What sense can you make of 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.? If "a.m." means before midday and "p.m." means after midday then midday surely is neither "a.m." nor "p.m." and midnight is just as much one as it is the other.

What about the words "morning", "evening" and "afternoon". Most of us would agree that morning starts at midnight and ends at noon but what about the afternoon. Obviously the afternoon starts at noon but when does it end? I say it ends at sunset then it's evening until midnight but this is not how everyone uses these words.

What about a simple expression like "next Wednesday"? This seems an innocent enough expression but what does one really mean by it? I like to keep things simple, if I say "next Wednesday" I mean the next day in the coming future which is Wednesday. Today is Monday so next Wednesday would be in two days time. I think that I might be alone in this way of thinking, most people would mean Wednesday next week. What do you think? Does anyone use expressions like "Wednesday week"?

I generally try to avoid confusion by using expressions like "Wednesday next week" (or just "Wednseday" if I mean the one this week). However this doesn't always solve the problem because there is some dissagreement on which the first day of the week is. I think of the week as starting on Sunday so for me Sunday next week is in six days but some might think that it's in thirteen days.

This topic has been disscussed in previous threads and most favour Monday as the first day of the week. The connexion between this question and learning English is a bit strained but I hope nobody would mind my responding to the "Mondayists" (nice word?).

Jiggy says "First day of the week cant be a holiday." I disagree, why can't it? Cmhiv says "Historically/religiously, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest; rest from what, you ask? Well, rest from the week just gone by. This is my humble guess." I think that you're on the right track but you're over looking something.

The concept of the week came to Europe (and thence to other parts of the world) from the Babylonians through the Jews and the Christians. Since anceint times the Jews have been celebrating the sabath as a day of rest from the week just gone by. It says in Genisis that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The thing is that the Jewish sabath is on Saturday. Christians moved their holy day to Sunday because this is the day on which Jesus is said to have risen. So, may be you could say, Christians rest for the week to come.

Whether you believe the Bible, Torah or not. It seems to be a testiment to the fact that the week was originally conceived to start on Sunday. The concept of the weekend is only a few of centuries old. I'll favour the weight of millenia over the arguement that Monday is the first day of the week because Sunday is part of the weekend.

Another cause of confusion is the writing of the date. I write the date as day/month/year. I think that this is the norm in most countries/languages. In Japanese, however, they write year/month/day. Again this is a topic that has been discussed but as far as I know it is only in English-speaking North America that month/day/year is used. Once an American workmate of mine was confused by a date written by an English workmate. I'd say "It's the 21st of April 2003." What about you?

Off on a tangent again but Cmhiv suggested we could have 13 months of 28 days each per year giving us exactly 4 weeks per month and 52 per year. This would be nice except that the years would be too short. You could make one month have 29 days (two months in a leap year) but then the months and weeks get out of sync. You could make it that the 29th is not part of the week but just a kind of blank day, however, many would not be happy with interupting the cycle of weeks. You could make a leap year have 53 weeks with seven 29-day months in the year. Or you could even make a leap year have 14 months. The trick is to make the average calendar year about 365.2422 days long. It's interesting to expore calendar reform but it's not got much to do with English so I'll leave it at that.

One last question: what about the seasons? When do you think of their starting and finishing ... with the equinox and solstice?
El   Monday, April 21, 2003, 09:27 GMT
i agree and disagree with you jim. i also use "this wednesday" for if it is monday in two days' time, but i use next wednesday or a week on wednesday for the wednesday after the one in two days' time. does this make sense??

and don't worry too much about seasons, they worry about themselves..
cmhiv   Monday, April 21, 2003, 15:50 GMT
I was speaking with this person from England, and when he said, "next weekend," I said, "do you mean 'this weekend' or the 'following weekend'?" He said that in England one says "next weekend" to mean the next set of days in the week that are Sat. and Sun. I thought about this for a while and I think that "this weekend" makes just as much sense as "next weekend."

"Next weekend, I will go..."
"This weekend, I will go..."

To me, saying next weekend on a Mon. means the next time Sat. and Sun come. After Moday, it seems to me that one should say "this weekend." I guess if one says "this weekend" on a Mon., this person would be talking about the events that just happened last Sat. and Sun.

There is another topic; "last weekend."

For me, I think it depends on the situation one is in, and what day of the week a person is talking on.
KT   Tuesday, April 22, 2003, 10:44 GMT
I always use twelve thirty, twelve fifty, quarter after, etc.

I was taught to write 31st April, 2003 and day/month/year. But I switched to April 31, 2003 and month/day/year after spending years in the States.

To me, if today is Monday, "this Wednesday" is the day after tomorrow, "this weekend" is this coming weekend. I may say "this coming weekend" and "this coming Wednesday" to avoid confusion. "Last weekend" is this past weekend. Again, I may say "this past weekend." "Next Wednesday" will be Wednesday next week.

How about (Chinese) Lunar calendar? I'm not familiar with it. But I know sometimes it's 29 days a month and sometimes it's 30. You get an extra month in a leap year. Full moon is always on the 15th day of a month.
Maria   Tuesday, April 22, 2003, 16:04 GMT
I would say afternoon is between 12-5pm after that it is evening for me.
Ashley   Tuesday, April 22, 2003, 18:42 GMT
I use basically the same expressions as you do Jim. All except for the time....I'll usually just read what it says on my watch although I will occassionally use 10 'till, past, etc.
mjd   Thursday, April 24, 2003, 07:55 GMT
Usually someone will say "this coming Wednesday" to refer to the Wednesday in the same week and "next Wednesday" for the one in the upcoming week.

I tend to use the digital time expressions and the "to and afters": "ten-fifty", "five to...", "quarter after...."