One of the most important aspects of learning any language is being able to ask and tell the time.
If you’ve ever wondered how to tell the time in French, you’ll discover all you need right here.
We’ll cover how to ask the time in French, how to say when something is happening, and of course give you the full set of rules for telling the time in French with plenty of examples. Now let’s get started!
Asking the Time in French
We included the easiest phrase in the title of this post. This is absolutely the most common way to ask the time in French. You simply need to say:
- Quelle heure est-il ? – What time is it?
Another common formulation is to ask someone if they have the time in French:
- Avez-vous l’heure ? – As-tu l’heure ? – Do you have the time?
If you want to be more polite about asking the time, you can even use the conditional tense. Saying please never hurts, regardless of how you formulate your question:
- Auriez-vous l’heure, s’il-vous-plaît ? – Would you have the time, please?
Le temps: Time in French?
In each of the questions about French time above, you’ll notice that we used the “l‘heure.” Translated literally, “l’heure” means “the hour,” while it’s also always the word we use to refer to the time.
Another French word for time is “le temps,” however this is never used when asking what time is it in French or when telling the time. Le temps is rather for the general concept of time.
- Le temps guérit toutes les blessures. – Time heals all wounds.
- Le temps n’attend personne. – Time waits for no one.
- Tes compétences s’amélioreront avec le temps. – Your skills will improve over time.
Telling Time in French
Just like in English you say the time by starting with “it is…”, in French we always say the time by starting with “il est…”. When we write the time in numbers, we have the option between using a colon like in English, or an “h” to denote l’heure.
- Il est 20:00. – Il est 20h00. – It’s 8:00 pm.
The 24-hour clock
In general, we use the 24-hour clock when we tell the time in French. There is no French equivalent to AM or PM. When we write the time in numbers, we never use the 12-hour clock for the second half of the day.
In spoken French, especially when reading the time from an analog clock, or if we write out the time in words rather than digits, it’s nonetheless common to use the 12-hour clock for the second half of the day. In this case we generally clarify the time of day with one of the modifiers listed here. We’ll show these in use in our examples in the following sections.
|du matin||in the morning|
|de l’après-midi||in the afternoon|
|du soir||in the evening|
|du petit matin||in the early morning (pre-dawn)|
Note that the dividing line between l’après-midi and le soir is fairly vague with respect to when one ends and the next begins. Likewise for the petit matin and the matin. For the early morning, it’s also common to just say “du matin.”
On the hour
The French equivalent of “o’clock” is simply “heure(s).” When we state a time on the hour, we start with “il est,” we say the number of the hour, and we follow with “heure(s).” For one o’clock we use the singular “heure,” whereas for all other hours we use the plural “heures.”
As we saw above when writing the hour in digits, it’s common to use an “h” in the place of the colon. When we write times on the hour in digits, it’s also common to drop the two zeros denoting the minutes.
- Il est une heure. – Il est une heure du petit matin. – Il est 1:00. – Il est 1h00. – Il est 1h. – It’s one o’clock. – It’s one o’clock in the morning. – It’s 1:00. – It’s 1 am.
- Il est quinze heures. – Il est trois heures de l’après-midi. – Il est 15:00. – Il est 15h00. – Il est 15h. – It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. – It’s 3 pm.
Adding minutes to the hour
Now that you’ve learned how to tell the time on the hour, let’s move on to adding the minutes. The most straightforward way of doing this is to simply say the number of minutes after the time we learned in the previous section. In other words, we add the minutes just after “heure(s).”
- Il est une heure dix. – Il est une heure dix du petit matin. – Il est 1:10. – Il est 1h10. – It’s one ten in the morning. – It’s 1:10 am.
- Il est quatre heures vingt-deux. – Il est quatre heures vingt-deux du petit matin. – Il est 4:22. – Il est 4h22. – It’s four twenty-two in the morning. – It’s 4:22 am.
- Il est dix-sept heures trente. – Il est cinq heures trente de l’après-midi. – Il est 17:30. – Il est 17h30. – It’s five thirty in the afternoon. – It’s 5:30 pm.
Using fractions of the hour in French
Similarly to English, in French we also have our quick fractions for “quarter past,” “half past,” and “quarter to” the hour. To use these fractions, we just add the following compositions just after “heure(s)” in the place of the minutes like we saw in the previous section. It’s uncommon to use these with the 24-hour clock.
|et quart||quarter past|
|et demie*||half past|
|moins le quart||quarter to|
*Note that exceptionally, with half past noon and half past midnight we say “et demi.”
- Il est une heure et quart du matin. – Il est 1h15. – It’s quarter past one in the morning.
- Il est cinq heures et demie de l’après-midi. – Il est 17h30. – It’s half past five in the afternoon.
- Il est dix heures moins le quart du soir. – Il est 21h45. – It’s quarter to ten at night.
Similarly to English, we can use the same formula we saw in the last section for any number of minutes before the hour by using “moins,” which translates directly as “minus.”
Note that you’ll sometimes hear people doing the same for the minutes past the hour with “et,” though this formulation is superfluous since the standard way to state the time omits it.
- Il est une heure moins une. – Il est 12:59. – It’s one minute to one.
- Il est six heures moins six. – Il est 5:54. – It’s six minutes to six.
- Il est dix heures moins dix. – Il est 9h50. – It’s ten to ten.
In conversation, French speakers sometimes omit the hour and just use this “moins” formulation to say it’s almost that hour. This works when you know what hour it almost is.
- Le bus passe à neuf heures. Il est déjà moins dix. Il faut qu’on aille ! – The bus passes at nine o’clock. It’s already ten to. We need to go!
- Il est moins cinq. Tes parents vont arriver dans quelques minutes. Dépêche-toi ! – It’s five to. Your parents will arrive in a few minutes. Hurry up!
Noon and Midnight
Like in English, these two midpoints of the 12-hour cycle have specific names in French: midi and minuit. When we state either of these times in French, we use the same formulations we learned above and simply replace the hour with midi or minuit. Also, remember the exception we saw for “et demi” for these two.
Minuit always refers to 12:00 at night, lasting just one minute at midnight.
Midi means noon, so likewise technically refers to the single minute at 12:00. In spoken French though, people use midi more along the lines of “noontime” or “midday,” referring generally to the time of day when people take their lunch break.
- Il est minuit et demi. – Il est 00h30. – It’s half past midnight.
- Il est midi moins le quart. – Il est 11h45. – It’s quarter to noon.
- Il est midi cinquante-neuf. – Il est 12h59. – It’s twelve fifty-nine in the afternoon.
- Nous rencontrons nos collègues à la brasserie ce midi. – We’re meeting our colleagues at the brasserie at midday today.
Referring to Time in French
So far in this post, we’ve focused on how to tell time in French, covering all the basics so you can respond with fluency whenever someone asks “what time is it?” in French. In this section we’ll get into some of the related vocabulary to allow you to talk about time in various contexts.
À – At
When we need to say that something is happening at a certain time, in French we simply use the preposition à. The other rules for stating the time all still apply; we just drop the “il est” and use “à” to link the time up with the rest of the sentence. We saw this in the final example of the last section; the rest of the examples in this post will all use à to talk about time in French.
- Nous devons partir à l’aéroport à quatre heures et demie. – We need to leave for the airport at four thirty in the morning.
- J’ai un rendez-vous avec l’architecte demain matin à neuf heures. – I have an appointment with the architect tomorrow morning at nine o’clock.
- Son cours de yoga est à dix-huit heures trente. – Her yoga class is at six thirty in the afternoon.
Asking about time: À quelle heure
Unlike in English where the preposition is often omitted when asking about the time, in French it’s obligatory to include à: “à quelle heure” therefore translates as “at what time.” The same is true when we use this phrase in the affirmative.
- À quelle heure devons-nous partir ? – [At] what time do we need to leave?
- Je ne sais pas à quelle heure nous nous rencontrons demain matin. – I don’t know [at] what time we’re meeting tomorrow.
- À quelle heure est son cours ? – Son cours est à quelle heure ? – [At] what time is her class?
Precision and imprecision
We have a few French expressions to introduce a level of precision or imprecision to whatever time we’re talking about, similar to their English counterparts. We’ll introduce each one here and give a few examples to see how they’re used.
Pile: On the dot
“Pile” is the expression used to denote an exact time. In the sentence, it’s placed directly after the time we’re referring to.
For added emphasis, it’s common to even add poil to the expression. Literally, “poil” translates as “hair,” though in this case it’s used more because of how the phrase now sounds: pile poil !
- Le premier ministre va donner son discours ce soir à dix-neuf heures pile. – The prime minister will give his speech tonight at exactly seven pm.
- J’ai rendu mon rapport au chef vendredi à dix-sept heures pile poil. – I handed in my report to the boss on Friday at 5 pm on the dot.
“Presque” is used the same way as its English counterpart “almost.” It’s placed directly before the time.
- Il est presque neuf heures. Il faut qu’on décolle bientôt ! – It’s almost nine o’clock. We need to get going soon!
- Il était presque minuit quand nous sommes finalement retournés à la maison. – It was almost midnight when we finally got back home.
Environ: Around, About
“Environ” is useful for adding some imprecision to our time in French, similar to “around” or “about” in English. When stating an approximate time, “environ” is placed just after “il est.” When talking about when something is happening, “environ” is placed just after “à.”
Il est environ midi. – It’s around noon.
Nous allons manger à environ vingt heures. – We’ll eat at about eight pm.
Vers: Around, About
“Vers” has a similar use to environ, in that both are used to provide an approximate time in French. With “vers,” however, we use it to replace “à” when talking about when something is happening.
- Le facteur livre mon courrier normalement vers dix heures trente. – The mailman normally delivers my mail around ten thirty.
- Nous allons manger vers vingt heures. – We’ll eat around 8 pm.
Conclusion: Time in French
Telling the time in French is fortunately pretty straightforward, with very regular rules and a lot of similarities to English. We covered it all here, starting with asking for the time and noting the important differences between l’heure and le temps.
The bulk of the post focused on all the rules for telling time in French, starting with how we use the 24-hour clock, and then talking about the time on the hour, adding or subtracting minutes from the hour, referencing fractions of the hour, and talking about noon and midnight.
To say at what time something is happening, we then saw how we always need to use à, both in statements and in questions. We rounded out our post with some modifiers to add precision or approximation to our times using pile, presque, environ, and vers.
We included plenty of examples throughout the post to get you used to telling time in French and talking about the time in French. Does it all appear clear at this point? It’s easy enough to practice since you surely consider the time on a regular basis: go ahead and give it a try, and you’ll find you’ll quickly be able to tell the time in French with ease!