Learning to Tell Time in French in Speech or Writing

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Cultural Notes

Before you learn to tell time in French, it’s helpful to look at how the French tell time, culturally. First, you should be aware that the French do not always use the twelve-hour clock we are familiar with in the United States. Instead, especially for public events, the French often use the twenty-four hour official clock. There is a quick equation you can use to quickly figure out the time if you are not used to this. When you hear the time, if it is a number greater than twelve, simply subtract twelve from the total time given and you will know what time it is on a twelve-hour clock. For example, if you hear 16h, subtract twelve and you will have the time: 4:00 p.m.

Perhpas the most important cultural fact to remember is that the French are not always as time-oriented as Americans are. While an American may make a date with a friend and expect it to begin exactly on time, the French, on the other hand, are not always such sticklers about time; there is a little more flexibility as to when things begin.

The Basics

Suppose you want to ask someone the time in French. You can ask what time it is - Quelle heure est-il? Or you can inquire if they have the time - Vous avez l’heuere?/Tu as l’heuere? English-speakers use these same questions to ask for the time.

To tell the time, you begin by saying Il est… (it is…). Then you insert the number of the hour plus the word heure(s).

  • For example, if it is three o’ clock, you will say Il est trois heures.
  • If it is three fifteen, add quinze or et quart after heures.
  • If it is three thirty, add trente or et demie after heures.
  • If it is three forty-five, there are two different ways to tell the time: by still looking forward from 3:00 - Il est trois heures quarante-cinq, or by looking backward from 4:00 - Il est quatre heures moins le quart or Il est quatre heures moins quinze.

To ask someone what time an event is at, ask Á quelle heure…? At what time…? If you want to know specifically when something occurs, especially habitually, ask Quand…? When…?

To explain that an event happens between certain hours, use the formula entre ___ et ____ or de ___ (jusqu’)à.


It is important to learn how to read and write the time with the French system; it’s really very simple.

  • 6:15 a.m. would be written 6h15.
  • 6:00 a.m. would be written 6h.
  • 6:00 p.m. would be written 18h.

To read and write the time in French, you just need to keep two basic things in mind:

  1. Insert “h” where you would usually insert “:”
  2. Think on a 24-hour clock rather than a 12-hour clock.

Important Vocabulary

If you want to be able to tell time, it is helpful to know not only the basic time telling words, but also words that identify different periods of time, especially times of the day. That way, you can tell a friend, “Meet me at dawn” or an accomplice, “Meet me at dusk.”

Basic Time-Telling Vocabulary:

  • Á quelle heure? - when?/ at what time?
  • Vous avez l’heure? tu as l’heure? - Do you have the time?
  • Quelle heure est-il? - what time is it?
  • Il est une heure - it is one o’ clock.
  • Il est deux heures - it is two o’ clock.
  • Il est deux heures et quart - it is two fifteen.
  • Il est deux heures et demie - it is two thirty.
  • Il est trois heures moins vingt - it is twenty to three (or two forty).
  • Il est midi - it is noon.
  • Il est minuit. it is midnight.
  • Viens me rencontrer l’aube. meet me at dawn.

Times of Day:

  • l’aube (f) - dawn
  • le lever de soleil - sunrise
  • le matin - morning
  • midi - noon
  • l’après-midi - afternoon
  • le soir - evening
  • le crépuscule - dusk
  • le coucher de soleil - sunset
  • la nuit - night