How To Ask Or Tell The Time In French (Beginner's Guide)

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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How To Ask Or Tell The Time In French (Beginner's Guide)

If you’re learning French, one of the most important first things you’ll need to learn is how to ask (or tell) the time in French.

Whether you’re visiting or moving to France, you won’t get far if you can’t discuss schedules.

If you want to avoid sign language and gestures when trying to ask a French native for the time (think pointing at your wrist and trying to understand the answer someone gives you), this is the guide for you.

Dive in to find out how to ask for or tell the time in French to boost what you’ve learned in your French course.

How to ask for the time in French

To ask for the time in English, you generally ask ‘what time is it?‘.

French uses a similar question for this purpose.

To ask what the time is in French, the phrase you’re looking for is:

Quelle heure est-il?

What time is it?

But one of the other ways to ask for the time in French, particularly if you’re addressing a stranger, is to say:

Excusez-moi, est-ce que vous avez l’heure, s’il vous plaît?

Excuse me, do you have the time please?

The first phrase is more direct and perhaps more suited to family and friends.

But note that the second phrase is more formal in tone. It uses the vous form and features the phrase s’il vous plait (please).

You’re going to want to choose the most appropriate phrase depending on the context.

Telling someone the time in French: the key phrase

So, how should you respond if someone asks you quelle heure est-il?

The phrase you will need is: il est… (which means ‘it is’) followed by the hour.

I’ve included a few examples of this phrase in action further down in this article.

Key vocabulary to use when asking for and telling the time in French

Below, you’ll find some of the essential vocabulary you’ll need to ask for and tell the time in French.

Take a look and familiarize yourself with the words you’re unsure of:

EnglishLe Francais
Quarter pastEt quart
Half pastEt demie
Quarter toMoins le quart
TimeL'heure

More vocabulary related to times of the day in French

But the vocabulary, words and French phrases you’ll require if you’re going to understand the responses you receive when you ask the time in French go further than this.

You’ll also need some phrases that are related to the times of the day (particularly if you are not familiar with military time).

Take a look:

EnglishLe Francais
MorningDu matin
MiddayMidi
AfternoonDe l'après-midi
EveningDu soir
MidnightMinuit

Telling the time in French — the basics

Now, let’s piece together the vocabulary with the basics of how to tell the time in French.

Here are six essential things you need to know:

1. When you’re telling the time in French, it’s important to use the French word heure, which means time

Il est une heure.

It's one o'clock.

2. Remember that there’s a difference between the word heure and le temps. Whereas heure means ‘time’, le temps refers to a period of time. You can remember that heure means ‘time’ as it sounds similar to the English word ‘hour’

3. When you tell the time in French, keep in mind the rules about singular and plural nouns. With one o’clock and times between one o’clock and two o’clock, use the singular form. For any other time of the day, use the plural. (Keep reading for examples on this)

4. In the written form, instead of a colon to separate the hours and minutes, the letter h is used. Any ideas what the h stands for? Yes, it means heure! For example:

4h00

4:00

5. Instead of using a.m. or p.m. the French language uses the phrases du matin or de l’après-midi. But we usually use military time when telling the time in French

Il est cinq heures de l’après-midi.

It's five in the afternoon.

6. And, finally, we just mentioned that the time in French usually is told using military time. What does this mean for you as a French beginner? Knowing how to tell the time in French depends on a solid grasp of French numbers up to 24

So, if someone asks you excusez-moi, est-ce que vous avez l’heure, s’il vous plaît? How should you respond?

Well, if it was five o’clock in the afternoon, you would say:

Il est cinq heures.

It's five o'clock.

If the time was quarter-past five, you would say:

Il est cinq heures et quart.

It's five fifteen/ It's quarter past five.

Minutes past the hour in French

In a similar way to the French phrase il est une heure et quart (or quarter-past one), if you wanted to tell someone that the time is five minutes past one, you would say:

Il est une heure cinq.

It's five past one.

Notice that the minutes follow the hour and that in this case, there’s no need to use the word et.

Minutes to the hour in French

In French, if you wanted to say that it was ten minutes to five, the phrase moins is required. It means ‘less’ in English and sort of means, in this case, that it’s ten minutes less than five o’clock. It follows the word heures when telling someone the time.

For example:

Cinq heures moins dix.

Quarter to five.

Now, how would you tell someone the time if it was quarter to five? Read until the end to find out!

Singular and plural for telling the time in French

The final point we’ll leave you with is the difference between using singular and plural nouns when telling the time in French. We’ve already said that any time between one o’clock and two o’clock takes the singular form.

To clarify this, here is an example:

Il est une heure et quart.

It is quarter past one.

What you’ll notice here is that the word heure takes the singular form. Instead of heures, which you would use for more than one hour, you use heure.

If it was three o’clock, the noun heure would take the plural form:

Il est trois heures.

It's three o'clock.

Practice telling the time in French to gain confidence

All it takes is a little bit of practice and knowledge of your French numbers to be able to tell the time in French.

If you’re wondering how else can you gain confidence when telling the time, I advise that once you’re familiar with your French numbers, that you start by identifying the o’clock times on your watch.

As soon as you’re completely confident, check your watch from time to time and try to tell the time in French!

Oh, and if you wanted to tell someone that it is ‘quarter to five’, how would you say it?

Yes, that’s right — cinq heures moins le quart.


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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic
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