Talking about Time in German – Time of Day

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our “How to talk about time?” mini series.
In the first part, we took a general look at the various ways of indicating time and even though you don’t really need it to understand today’s lecture, you should definitely check it because it’ll give you a good overview over the scope of this series. So if you want to check it out, you can find it here.

Anyway, the title of today’s lecture is

Time 2- The Time of Day

And it’s a pretty epic title, I have to say. Sounds like a fast paced action flic, in space, with aliens and ‘splopsions and excitement.
But really all it is, is learning how to say stuff  like “It’s 10 o’ clock.” in German.
So basically, this will probably be the most boringest episode ever. But we need to know it, so let’s jump right in and get it over with :)

And before we get to how to tell what time it is, we’ll start with how to ask for it.
“It’s 2021 Emanuel, everyone has smartphones. No one needs to ask for time anymore.”
Oh yeah? Well, what do you do when you’re in the forest and you don’t have reception…
“The smartphone doesn’t need reception to show the ti…”
Whatever! Let’s just learn it, okay.

How to ask for time in German

And the most common question is …

  • Wie spät ist es?

So basically, Germans ask “how late it is” and yes… it also works at 6 o’ clock in the morning.
Of course, that’s not the only option  to ask for time. There are many variations.

  • Wieviel Uhr ist es?
  • Wieviel Uhr haben wir?
  • Wie spät haben wir?
  • Haben Sie/hast du eine Uhr?
  • Do you have a watch/a clock?

And depending on the region, one of these might be the most common one, but generally “Wie spät ist es.” is the best choice.

Now, if you want to ask the sexy stranger at the bus stop for the time, which you don’t need to do because you totally have a smart phone, but you want to then pivot the conversation toward having a coffee later… so if you want to do that, you’d of course not ask the question directly, but instead somehow introduce it, and the most common way is this

  • (Entschuldigen Sie), können Sie mir sagen/wissen Sie, wie spät es ist?

And you might have noticed that the order switched now. The pure question was

  • “Wie spät ist es?


and now we have ”

  • … wie spät es ist?

The reason for that is that the question now is a side sentence, and those have their verb at the end (more on that in the series on sentence structure). And I am mentioning that because it’s actually a pretty common mistake for learners to say “… wie spät ist es.”
People will of course understand that, but it definitely makes you sounds like a beginner and the person will ask you where you’re from and you’ll end up having a coffee together. Which is … what you wanted anyway, so yeah, the mistake is not a problem, but if you want to sound natural, try to get that little switch right.

Cool. So now we know how to ask for time to get a date.
But now, let’s switch the roles around.
So you’re the appealing stranger at the bus stop and a German wants to get a coffee date with you. So they come to you and ask you if you can tell them the time.
Then you need to know how to reply.
If you’re in Berlin, and you want to be as funny and creative as the locals, you can just say “Ja.” because the other person asked you if you CAN tell them the time. That’s some high level comedy right there.
But the real standard answer template is this:

  • Es ist [….].
  • It is […].

Just like in English, so all we have to know is how to fill in the time of day, the Uhrzeit.

And there are two main ways to do that in German – we’ll call them news speaks and street speak. Because one sounds more official, while the other is more common in colloquial daily life.
Let’s start with the more boring one.

Time in “news speak”

Most of you probably know that Germany is using a 24 hour system. So German watches do NOT have the AM-PM concept. And in fact, it has taken me years to figure out which one is which.
So, in Germany the day starts at 00:01 and ends at 23:59.
And this is actually almost all we need to know for “news speak”.
All we need to do is read the numbers and replace the “:” with the German word Uhr, which is the German word for watch and clock.
So, to verbalize the time 20:15 (8:15 pm) in news speak, we need to say “zwanzig Uhr fünfzehn“.
Let’s look at some examples, as a full sentence.

  • 20:15 – Es ist 20 Uhr 15.
  • 18:57 – Es ist 18 Uhr 57.
  • 03:10 – Es ist 3 Uhr 10.
  • 07:30 – Es ist 7 Uhr 30.

Easy, isn’t it? Oh and for the full hours it is even more easierererer.

  • 19:00 – Es ist 19 Uhr.
  • 7:00 – Es ist 7 Uhr.

Cool… so this is how to say the time in news speak.
Now, the reason I am calling it news speak is that this is how they say it on TV or the radio or train station or airport.
But it’s definitely fine in daily life, too. It might sound a little stiffer than necessary but it’s not as odd as for instance American military time….

“You hussies are gonna get up at oh four hundred tomorrow and gimme 50 right away.
Make sure to touch the floor. That’s the closest you’ll ever get to a hump.” 

Oh, my time at the Airforce… sweet sweet memories**. (**author’s service for the Airforce is unverified, might be made up)
Anyway, people do use news speak in daily life and there’s actually a strong tendency to drop the Uhr entirely and just say the numbers…

  • 18:57 – Es ist Achzehn Siebenundfünfzig.

Just note that dropping Uhr doesn’t work for the full hours.

  • 19:00 – Es ist 19.   is wrong! 
  • 25:00 – Es ist 25 Uhr . Is also wrong, but for other reasons.
  • 23:00 – Es ist 23 Uhr. Is correct

So yeah, news speak is basically switching the “:” with Uhr and it’s definitely a simple and quick option for you to tell what time it is. But if you want to REALLY sound like the natives, then you need to learn… street speak.
And street speak doesn’t only sound extremely cool, it actually involves something really awesome…  math. Can we get some hype in the chat, guys?!
Seriously, the core idea of street speak is epressing time by using time differences, so it’s the equivalent to the English “past – to” system. But there are a couple of differences and some really, uhm, fun twists, so let’s take a look.

Time in “street speak”

The first thing to know is that street speak only uses the numbers 1 to 12. So you CANNOT use a number higher than 12, it would sound incredibly strange.
And to say the full hour, you basically take the number and put um in front of it.

  • 8:00 – Es ist um 8.

How do we know which 8 it is?
Well, as I mentioned German doesn’t use AM and PM, so either it is clear from context or you’d add a word like morgens that makes it clear.

  • 08:00 – Es ist (morgens) um 8.
  • 20:00 – Es ist (abends) um 8.
  • 14:00 – Es ist (mittags) um 2.
  • 02:00 – Es ist (nachts) um 2.

And please note that there is NO Uhr anywhere here, like we had in news speak. In some contexts, um X Uhr does work, but for a simple statement about what time it is, it sounds quite bad, so DON’T do it.
Next, we need the half hour and that’s where things get messy.
The way to do analogue to English, so you say

  • halb X

But the big difference is that in German, X is the hour that is COMING UP! Not the one that you see on the watch, like it is in English.

  • 08:30 – Es ist halb 9.
  • 08:30 – It is half 8. 

The German logic is like “half a pint “. Halb 9 is “half of the 9” is completed.
The English logic is that it’s basically a shortened “half [past] 8“.
Either way, you really need to pay attention to this and if you’re not sure, ask for clarification or use news speak. It’s a full hour difference, so that could totally ruin that date you got with the person from the bus stop.

All right, so now we have the two “poles”, the full hour and the half hour. And all the rest is expressed by saying how many minutes we are away from those by using either vor (to) or nach (past), depending on which one is closer.
And these words then replace the um for the full hour.

  • 07:10 – Es ist 10 nach 7. (10 past 7)
  • 06:55 – Es ist 5 vor 7. (5 to 7)
  • 19:20 – Es ist 20 nach 7 (20 past 7)

Looks like German is EXACTLY like English here, but don’t forget… we have TWO poles.
And German uses BOTH of them. So if you’re close to the half hour, you’d use THAT as a reference instead.

  • 15:20 – Es ist 10 vor halb 4.
  • 15:20 – Es ist 20 nach 3.

In this case, both versions are fine. Me personally, I’d use halb but that’s really personal preference.
But it’s pretty save to say that anything within a 10 minute range (00:20 – 00:40) can be expressed using halb and anything within a five minute range (00:25 – 00:35) SHOULD be expressed using halb.

  • 18:25 – Es ist 5 vor halb 7.
  • 18:35 – Es ist 5 nach halb 7.

Technically, you could say:

  • Es ist 25 nach 6.

but that’s nothing a German native speaker would say. So… YES, you will have to learn referencing halb :). And don’t let your brain whine around that it’s “confusing”. It’s the exact same logic as for the full hour, so tell your brain to shut it, and do its job. And once you’ve gotten hang of it, you can actually play around and confuse your German friends.

  • 12:44 – Es ist 6 vor 10 vor 1.
  • 18:20 – Es ist 20 vor 10 nach halb 7.

They might actually make an effort to decipher that.

All right.
Now, we’ve covered almost all possible times, but there is one more thing we need to talk about.
And that thing is viertel...

How to use viertel

Viertel is the Germna word for quarter, and it’s used like in English in reference to the full hour.

  • 22:45 – Es ist Viertel vor 11.

And viertel can ONLY relate to the full hour, so you will NEVER But you will never hear this:

  • Es ist viertel nach halb 8 (07:45)

So far so simple. And there really wouldn’t be any reason to give this its own headline, if it wasn’t for… the variation.
Dun dun dunnn.

I don’t exactly know where to draw the line, but some regions of Germany, including the East and some regions in the south have a different view on viertel. Instead of treating is as a difference and relating it to the full hour with vor and nach, they treat it as a pole in its own right.
And not only that… they actually use a forth pole besides halb, um and viertel, because they call the 45 minute mark dreiviertel.
Let’s look at an example.

  • 13:15 – Es ist viertel 2. (instead of “viertel nach 1″)
  • 13:30 – Es ist halb 2.
  • 13:45 – Es ist dreiviertel 2. (instead of “viertel vor 2″)

I am from Berlin and we use this system, so I find this perfectly logical. But for anyone who is not familiar with this system, and I do mean German native speakers, it seems to be an unsolvable mystery. My ex-girlfriend grew up in the north-west of Germany and she would NOT understand when I said “Get me a beer. And swiftly.” … oh… uhm… I… I mean, she would not understand “dreiviertel 3″.
In her mind, this could be four different things…

  • 15:15 , 15:45, 14:15, 14:45

I explained what the logic is and that it’s simply a progression of a quarter, half, three quarters, but to no avail. And it’s the for MOST Germans who don’t know this system. Something in their brains just blanks.
Same for Cari from Easy German. She is from the same region as my ex and she just doesn’t get it.
The other one, using viertel vor and viertel nach, is universally understood, so you should stick to that to be safe. But if you are in a region that uses the variation and you can pull it off properly… that’ll gain you some native speaker points :).

And speaking of scoring native speaker points… we’re technically done with the time, but let’s before we wrap up go over a couple of nice colloquial tricks to make your street speak sound even more legit.

Some colloquial tricks

First up, let’s assume that we and the person we’re talking to know the hour we’re talking about. In that case, we can just skip it and only use the difference. For example: you and your friend have to catch a train that will leave at 18:50 and now it is 18:25.

  • “Wann fährt der Zug los?”
    “10 vor 7.”
    “Und wie spät ist es jetzt.”
    “5 vor halb [   ].”

Here you don’t have to say the 7 again as both of you know what hour you are talking about.
So if you ask someone at the bus stop for the time, they might assue you know the hour and just say

  • “Ten to full.”
  • 10 vor um.”

You then ask “What hour?” and when they tell you, then you ask what year, and you act all time-travell-ish and you casually mention that you need coffee… it’s really not far to the bedroom from there. #datingadvice

And speaking of bedroom, the other thing I wanted to tell you about is the word kurz, which means short.
Because whenever it’s kind of close to halb or um, and you don’t want to do math or the exact minute doesn’t really matter, you can just say kurz instead of the exact minute.

  • 19:58 – Es ist kurz vor um 8.
  • 19:56 – Es ist kurz vor um 8.
  • 11:26 – Es ist kurz vor halb 12.
  • 11:29 – Es ist kurz vor halb 12.

And of course you can also combine the two things, so the person at the bus stop might just say

  • Kurz vor halb.

There. Someone just told you the time without actually saying any numbers.
And that’s actually nothing special, because there are plenty of “names” for points in time like today, later, earlier, soon, yesterday, this morning.
And that’s exactly what we’ll look at next time.
For today we’re done, and I really hope you got a good impression of how to say the time of day in German.
If you want to recap and check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if you any questions or suggestions about today’s post, please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next … time.

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