How to Express Time in French
As you discuss days, months, and specific dates in French, you’re going to need tell time (l’heure) and probably with both the 12-hour and 24-hour clocks.
How to express French time via the 12-hour clock
Time is typically expressed on a 12-hour clock. In French, you say the hour then the minutes, and it’s a little different from the way it’s done in English.
To tell a time on the hour in French, use il est + [number] + heure(s). For example: il est deux heures (it is two o’clock). Note: When it is one o’clock, say: il est une heure (it is one o’clock), using the feminine singular une instead of un because the word heure (hour) is feminine.
Always say the word heure(s) (hour[s]) when telling time. Even if familiar language often skips il est, it never skips heure(s). For example: quelle heure est-il? (what time is it?) Huit heures (eight o’clock).
French minutes (minutes) have a few twists and turns that you may not expect.
To say 1 to 30 minutes past the hour, simply say the number of minutes after the hour, like this:
Il est deux heures dix. (Literally It is two hours ten; which is to say It is 2:10.)
Il est sept heures vingt-cinq. (It is 7:25.)
For 15 minutes past the hour say, et quart (and a quarter). For example: Il est une heure et quart. (It’s a quarter past one.)
For 30 minutes past the hour, say et demie (and a half). For example: Il est une heure et demie. (It’s half past one.)
For 31 to 59 minutes past the hour, say the next hour moins (minus) the number of minutes, like this:
Il est quatre heures moins dix. (Literally 4 hours minus 10, or 3:50.)
Il est huit heures moins vingt. (Literally 8 hours minus 20, meaning 7:40.)
For a quarter until the hour, say moins le quart (minus the quarter). For example: Il est trois heures moins le quart. (It is a quarter until 3; meaning 2:45.)
To abbreviate a time in French, don’t use a colon between the hour and minutes like in English. Instead, use the letter h (for heure), like this: 8h10 (8:10).
French has specific words for noon and midnight: midi (noon) and minuit (midnight). Those two words are used without saying heures. For example: Il est minuit. Tout le monde au lit! (It’s midnight. Everybody to bed!)
With the 12-hour clock, you may need to clarify if it’s 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. Could make a big difference! French uses phrases to express the difference between morning (le matin), afternoon (l’après-midi), and evening/night (le soir).
du matin (in the morning or a.m.)
For example: Il part à six heures et demie du matin. (He leaves at 6:30 a.m.)
de l’après-midi (in the afternoon or p.m.)
For example: En hiver il fait nuit à cinq heures de l’après-midi. (In the winter, it’s dark at 5 p.m.)
du soir (in the evening/at night or p.m.)
For example: Ils dînent à sept heures du soir. (They eat dinner at 7 p.m.)
The line between afternoon and evening is not a very fixed one. It varies with the perception of the speaker, the seasons, even the weather.
Here are a few expressions that can come in handy when telling time in French.
pile (on the dot). For example: Il mange à midi pile. (He eats at noon on the dot.)
à (at). For example: Viens à trois heures. (Come at 3.)
C’est à quelle heure? (At what time is it?)
vers (around). For example: Je passerai vers 9 heures. (I will stop by around 9.)
How to express French time via the 24-hour clock
If you travel in France, you really may need this information! Using the 24-hour clock is really quite simple, because all you do is add. No more moins le quart or et demie and the like.
All you need is keep in mind that the 24-hour clock begins at zéro heure (12 a.m.) and ends at 23.59 (11:59 p.m.), and you write a period between the two parts of the time instead of abbreviating h. For example, 13.00 (treize heures) is 1 p.m.; 14.00 (quatorze heures) is 2 p.m., 15.00 (quinze heures) is 3 p.m., and so on.
And because it’s clear that all times after 12 (noon) are p.m., you have no need for du matin, de l’après-midi, or du soir anymore.
Here are some examples:
Le film commence à 20.40 (vingt heures quarante). (The movie begins at 8:40 p.m.)
Le bureau est ouvert de 8.00 (huit heures) à 17.30 (dix-sept heures trente). (The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Le déjeuner est servi à 12.15 (douze heures quinze) et le diner à 19.45 (dix-neuf-heures quarante-cinq). (Lunch is served at 12:15, and dinner at 7:45.)