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How do you tell time in Mandarin Chinese?

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Part I: Using a clock

Telling time in Mandarin is basically the same as telling time in English. If you know how to count, you can tell time. So, when reading 9:36, for example, you just say the number before the colon (9), use the word 点 (diǎn) [o’clock] to indicate the colon, and then say the number after the colon (36). Easy, right? 

Let’s jump in, and also learn how to say whether it’s 9:36 in the morning or 9:36 at night.

How do you tell time in Chinese?

In general

In English, time on this clock...

Screen Shot 2021-11-30 at 11.29.49 AM

So, what if someone asks you what time it is, and you look and see that it’s 9:21? Then you know what to do! But what if when you look at the time, it’s NOT 9:21? Then you panic. No! You are confident and cool. You see this, and you know what to say:

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 2.36.59 PM

When to use the word 分 (fēn) [minute]

When you hear the time spoken aloud, you’re likely to sometimes hear the word 分 (fēn) [minute] at the end of the time: 四点十七分 (sì diǎn shí qī fēn) [four-seventeen]. This literally means “four dot seventeen minutes.” 

You can say, 四点十七 (sì diǎn shí qī) [four-seventeen] or 四点十七分 (sì diǎn shí qī fēn) [four-seventeen]. Both are okay; they mean the same thing.

   Exception!

When the time is exactly 10 minutes after the hour, for example, 3:10, 7:10, and so on, 分 (fēn) [minute] cannot be omitted: 三点十分 (sān diǎn shí fēn) [3:10], 七点十分 (qī diǎn shí fēn) [7:10].

 
When the minute is under 10

When the minute is under 10, 零 (líng) [zero] has to be added after 点 (diǎn).

For example: 3:04 is 三点四 (分) (sān diǎn líng sì (fēn))

How to ask for the time

Now, what if you are without a time-telling device and you wish to ask a friendly Chinese-speaking person for the time? You need to say this: 请问,现在几点? (qǐng wèn, xiànzài jǐ diǎn) [Excuse me, what time is it now?]

Dividing the hour: half hours & quarter hours

Half hours

Now you know how to say all the times that can occur. But just as in English, in Mandarin, times on the clock are sometimes expressed approximately. For example:

Half past 6 is 六点半 (liù diǎn bàn), literally “six dot half.” The “half” of course means half an hour. 6:30 can also be expressed as 六点三十(分) (liù diǎn sān shí (fēn)) [six thirty] but 六点半 (liù diǎn bàn) is more common.

Look at these examples:

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 2.47.23 PM

TIP: When number “2” is used in telling the time, we say  “两 (liǎng).

 
Quarter hours

Half an hour is expressed using “half” (半), as we just saw. What about a quarter? If you said, 百分之25 (bǎi fēn zhī èr shí wǔ), then great! This does indeed mean a quarter, or more literally, twenty-five percent. But in Chinese, as in English, we do NOT say “twenty-five percent past four o’clock.” 

So, what is a quarter of an hour in Mandarin?

The word for “quarter” of an hour is 刻 (kè) and to say “a quarter,” you say 一刻 (yí kè). 

Look at these examples below and try to figure out which words we use to express a quarter past the hour and a quarter to the hour:

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 2.51.38 PM

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 2.52.34 PM

⤷ Did you know? The Mandarin word 差(chà) can be translated as “until,” “under,” “less,” “short of,” and “to.” In the context of telling time, it is used exactly the way “to” is used in English: 

八点差一刻 (bā diǎn chà yí kè)             A quarter to eight

So far, so good? If so, let’s add a small but completely manageable complication: in spoken Mandarin Chinese, the “past” of “a quarter past seven” (or another time) is sometimes omitted:

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 2.54.59 PM

  IMPORTANT:

BUT When using 差 (chà) as in 五点一刻 (wǔ diǎn chà yí kè) [a quarter to 5], the 差 (chà) must remain in the phrase and cannot be omitted.

Talking about the time throughout the day

TIP: Note about the order of time expressions: The bigger time unit always precedes the smaller time unit! For example, when we say 3 o’clock in the afternoon, “afternoon” is the bigger time unit, and “3 o’clock” is the smaller time unit. It will be expressed as “afternoon 3 o’clock” in Mandarin Chinese: 下午三点 (xià wǔ sān diǎn).

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 3.02.04 PM

No prepositions when telling the time

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 3.04.22 PM

Summary!

Remember the keys for expressing the time in Chinese:

  1. Know how to count.

  2. Know that the colon used when expressing time (12:45) is 点 (diǎn) in Chinese.

  3. Remember that you can put 分 (fēn) at the end of the time (for example, 三点四十二分), but in most cases you don’t have to. It is often omitted.

  4. When it’s about half past the hour, use 半 (bàn)  or 三十(分) (sān shí (fēn)).

  5. Remember that 过 (guò) is “past” and 差 (chà) is “to,” and a quarter of an hour is 刻 (kè). 

  6. When you have lots of time units in a sentence (e.g., Half past six in the morning), put the time units in order from biggest to smallest in the sentence as 早上六点半 (zǎo shang liù diǎn bàn).

All done 朋友们!

Useful Links:

Telling Time in Mandarin Chinese

Time words and word order

Times in Chinese

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Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

Now, let’s go practice telling the time like a native speaker!

Lina Shen

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