German punctuality is a thing. In order to be punctual like the Germans, you have to be able to tell the time in German. This skill also allows you to schedule appointments, read timetables, and understand German references to time. We’ll tell you all about the regular and peculiar ways to tell time in German, so let’s waste no time and dive right in!
Asking for the time in German
Germans use two different questions for asking for the time: “Wie viel Uhr ist es?” (“What time is it?” and “Wie spät ist es?” (literally “How late is it?”). Another way of saying “What’s the time?” in German would be: “Wieviel Uhr ist es?” Similarly to English, the most simple answer is to state “It is…” followed by the hour:
- “Es ist ein Uhr.” = It is one o’clock.
- “Es ist elf Uhr.” = It is eleven o’clock.
- “Es ist siebzehn Uhr.” = It is 5 p.m.
For the full hour, the Germans put the word “Uhr” (“clock”) at the end. Notice the third example above and beware that Germany uses the 24-hour system. For any hour greater than 12 you subtract 12 to arrive at the p.m. time.
Special full hours: Noon (12 p.m.) is “Mittag” and midnight is “Mitternacht”, also referred to as both “null Uhr” and “vierundzwanzig Uhr.” However, Germans commonly only use the latter for telling the full hour (“Es ist vierundzwanzig Uhr”) or for a time span ending in midnight: “Von zwanzig bis vierundzwanzig Uhr”.
Telling the exact time in German
For a starter, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, chances are it will hardly ever be the full hour when you ask or tell the time. Germans like to be precise! To tell the exact time down to the minute, you state the hour and then tag on the minutes:
- “Es ist drei Uhr zwanzig.” = It is three twenty.
- “Es ist einundzwanzig Uhr fünfundvierzig.” = It is nine forty-five p.m.
- “Es ist sieben Uhr zehn.” = It is seven ten.
Note that the word “Uhr” appears in the middle between the hour and the minutes, not at the end. For telling the exact time, you have to know your numbers well, at least up to sixty.
Time in relation to the full hour
Congratulations, with all the above examples, you’re already able to tell every possible time in German! But as with English, German has more ways to state the time, and it’s important to understand these as well. It is very common to refer to the full hour with before and after, “vor” and “nach” as follows:
- “Es ist zwanzig vor zwölf.” = It is twenty to twelve (twenty before twelve).
- “Es ist drei nach achtzehn Uhr.” = It is three past 6 p.m.
- “Es ist sieben vor neun.” = It is seven to nine (seven before nine).
Pay attention to the p.m. hours: you can drop “Uhr” for the morning hours, but not in the afternoon. Saying “dreizehn” instead of the full “dreizehn Uhr” (one p.m.) sounds odd. However, the minutes are optional. Both “fünf vor fünf” (five to five) and “fünf Minuten vor fünf” (five minutes to five) are fine.
Now, just like in English, the German language divides the hour like a pie into quarters and halves using “Viertel” and “halb” – which commonly substitute the minutes 15, 30, and 45:
- “Es ist Viertel nach zehn” = It is a quarter past ten.
- “Es ist halb acht.” = It is half past seven.
- “Es ist Viertel vor eins.” = It is a quarter to one.
The main difference here is that Germans don’t use “half past” – instead they halve the next hour! “Halb neun” literally means halfway there to nine, so it’s eight thirty, or half past eight.
Time rounding in German
Sometimes, even the Germans won’t tell the exact time or set a rather flexible meeting time. If it’s just before or after a specific time, you can say so using “kurz” (shortly):
- “Es ist kurz vor zwanzig Uhr.” = It is just before 8 p.m.
- “Es ist kurz nach neun.” = It is just after nine (shortly after nine).
- “Es ist kurz vor neunzehn Uhr.” = It is just before 7 p.m.
To set a meeting at a precise time, you’d say “um” (at). If you want to be deliberately vague, you can say “gegen” (round, literally “going on”, though it can also mean after, not just before).
- “Um dreizehn Uhr.” = At one p.m.
- “Gegen sechs.” = Round six.
If it was 5:29 and someone asked you for the time, you’d probably just round it up and say it was 5:30, or half past five, correct? Well, so do the Germans, but they’ll let you know about it using “kurz”:
- “Es ist kurz vor halb acht.” = It is just before seven thirty.
- “Es ist kurz nach halb zehn.” = It is just after nine thirty.
- “Es ist kurz vor Viertel nach sieben.” = It is just before a quarter past seven.
Note that there is no official verdict on just how short a time span “kurz” specifies, but as a rule of thumb, use it for anywhere between one and five minutes. By the way, the Germans seem obsessed with the five minutes before and after the half hour:
- “Es ist fünf vor halb drei.” = It is five to half past two (2:25).
- “Es ist fünf nach halb eins.” = It is five past twelve thirty (12:35).
Peculiarities of telling the time in German
Is your head spinning yet? Not to confuse you, but here are some more peculiarities the Germans have when telling time:
- While it’s perfectly correct to state that it’s thirty minutes past or before the hour as in “dreißig nach elf” (thirty past eleven), people commonly use “halb” instead.
- When rounding up, you can also say “Gleich ist es…” or “Es ist fast” – meaning “it’s just about…” or “it’s almost…”
- “Viertel” and “halb” (quarter and half” are not used with the 24-hour system, that is the afternoon hours: you won’t hear “Es ist halb siebzehn Uhr.”
- Beware when quarters and three quarters come into play without “vor” and “nach”. This usage is less commonplace, but you might encounter it. “Dreiviertel fünf” literally means three quarters there to five, so it’s a quarter to five, or 4:45. Even weirder is “Es ist Viertel vier,” which would be a quarter of four, in other words, a quarter past three, or 3:15. Got it?
Wrap your head around that! It appears just as complicated as the long composite words in German.