24 heures


“Quelle heure est-il?”

If there’s one question you will often hear in France, it’s “What time is it?”. Or more likely the informal construction, which breaks all the rules you are taught but is most commonly used: “Quelle heure il est?”

One of the frustrations I encountered when first moving here was the 24-hour clock. I discovered the French use the military time that I’d only heard before as a kid watching TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Mash, where they would say ‘Oh-seven-hundred hours, sir!’ for 7:00 a.m. The French use this clock not just in airports and train stations but all the time.

For non-native speakers, this requires some mental gymnastics. First you have to convert the 12-hour time clock we English speakers normally use into the 24-hour version. Alors…7 p.m. becomes 19:00, dix-neuf heures. Ten-thirty becomes 22:30, vingt-deux heures trente. That’s way too much math for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m numerically challenged, and the part of my brain that does language doesn’t like to do business with the part that counts.

“But it’s much less confusing than your a.m. and p.m.,” a French colleague said. “Half the time you English speakers forget to add it and we don’t know exactly what time you mean.” Ah, the French love of precision.

However, when you finally get the 24-hour clock down, you discover that although it is the rule, there are often exceptions. Sometimes people will simply say ‘une heure et demi’ for one-thirty in the afternoon. You are supposed to contextually understand that they don’t mean 1:30 a.m. Which I get, but hey, if it’s all about being precise…?

I love digital clocks because they do half the work for you. On the other hand, the clock in the above image known as the cadran Laumaillé in Toulouse makes telling the time especially challenging. There seems to be some mystery around its orgins (perhaps our Toulousaine friend Mélanie of My Virtual Playground can help us with that?)

My relationship with time is strained at the best of times. The big time clock in the sky casts its shadow on my daily doings, making me perpetually stressed and late for lack of time or causing me to over compensate by being early. My assumption that the French would be very Latin and fashionably late proved wrong from the outset.

While my compatriots have a way of seeming all casual and relaxed about time, they are irritatingly prompt for things like meetings and events. I’ve been known to arrive ten minutes late and miss entire speeches. The upside is I’m usually just in time for the drinks.

What’s your relationship with time? Do you use the 24-hour clock?


  1. davidprosser · June 22, 2017

    I think I use both dependent upon circumstances, usually what another person uses with me.
    It may be 50+ years since I did any French in school and I can’t recall whether it was in response to “Quelle heure est il?” but trois heures apres midi seems to ring bells which would seem to indicate using a 12 hour clock but specifying which 12 hours it was ?
    xxx Gigantic Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · June 22, 2017

      Good on you, David, for remembering so much of your high school French – I’m afraid that had I not come to live in France, it would have all gone out the window by now. Yes, we use both the 24- and 12-hour clocks, and ‘trois heures de l’après-midi’ vs ‘du matin’ is also very common.

  2. Yes – 3 pm when I mean quinze just translates in my head as 5 o’clock..aïe, aïe, aïe

    • MELewis · June 22, 2017

      When let’s see that’s 3 X 5 = 15 so I suppose it makes sense. Lol! 😉

  3. phildange · June 22, 2017

    Really when you hear the 24 hours clock all year long you don’t have to think anymore . You instantly know that 16 is 4 PM, 19 is 7 etc . Like learning how to read music notes, some practice and everything becomes automatic . And I’m sure even Anglophones may achieve this exploit, I heard some rumors saying they are very close to the human state .
    I mean, here in the Southwest at least, at home, with friends, in informal activites and everyday life people use the 12 hours clock . I grew up hearing and using, “l’école reprend à une heure et demie, il est arrivé à 4 heures, le spectacle commence à 9 heures,etc…” . When some doubt might arise people say “10 heures du matin, 10 heures du soir” .Nevertheless all of us identify immediately 18 heures or 15 heures . I’m sure a light and short psychiatric help could help the poor Anglophones in this direction . Again think of music: as a piano player one has to learn the G key then has to learn how to read in another code, the F key . And we all manage with practice, even British musicians .

    • MELewis · June 22, 2017

      Ah, as you well know we inferior beings do struggle, Phil, and I appreciate your sympathy for our pig-headedness 😉 You will be reassured to know that I do now identify the 18 as 6 and the 23 as 11, etc. It only took the first ten years or so! I never learned to read music, sadly. Perhaps if I’d had a French teacher?

      • phildange · June 22, 2017

        Sorry I still have no “Like” button on your blog and I can’t make it appear . Without this handicap i’d give your response a big one, I appreciate when human newbies acknowledge their condition . You deserve another one for your brave attempt of using arithmetic above . Don’t lose heart, be strong, one day you can make it .

      • MELewis · June 22, 2017

        You see, I just ‘liked’ your comment! Can do it on phone but not computer….mystery of WordPress!

      • memoirsofahusk · June 22, 2017

        Desktop – can like! It’s a mystery…

  4. Osyth · June 22, 2017

    My husband never wears a watch, seriously globetrots thereby crossing in and out of multiple timezones and always knows the exact time within a couple of minutes. It is this, amongst other things that leads people to speculate that he is actually one of The Men in Black. Living with this has lead me to give up any relationship with time keeping either traditional or modern 😉x

    • memoirsofahusk · June 22, 2017

      Beware if he asks you to have a look at his pen…

      • MELewis · June 22, 2017

        😀 Reminds me of a long-lost TV series I used to love but the name escapes me. The female spy was called agent 99.

      • Osyth · June 22, 2017

        Get Smart! I loved it aged a lot littler than I am now!

      • MELewis · June 22, 2017

        Right you are! Merci!

      • memoirsofahusk · June 22, 2017

        I loved Get Smart too!

      • Osyth · June 22, 2017

        Birds of a feather in the best possible way … I am certain those fabulous sixties series shaped me quite overtly – I feel a post percolating!

    • MELewis · June 22, 2017

      Ha, ha! Now that’s why he’s called two brains, then eh? My hubs uses me as his clock, as he finds that I am a font of knowledge and authority on most subjects. Your husband is right: time is best forgotten or internalized, I think, it’s only then that we can make friends with it.

  5. memoirsofahusk · June 22, 2017

    When I heard about kairological time, I adopted it officially immediately. Unknowingly I had been using it all my life 😉 I like the ‘Modern rhetorical’ approach as described most leniently (or confusingly if you prefer!) in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kairos

    • phildange · June 22, 2017

      Very interesting, this kairos .I’m ashamed to confess I had not heard of this Greek concept although its intuition had been in me for long.. Thank you very much .

    • MELewis · June 22, 2017

      Indeed, I am fascinated – both by the concept of kairos, and the fact you have introduced a subject that Phil has never heard of! 😀

      • memoirsofahusk · June 22, 2017

        And yet I’m British, quelle horreure! 😉

  6. Suzanne et Pierre · June 22, 2017

    Very interesting as usual. I have read that numbers are the most difficult thing in a second language that you always revert to counting in your mother tongue so time would be a bit similar without adding the difficulty of the 24h vs 12h clocks. As French is my mother tongue, I am used to the 24h clock but I must admit that I also go back & forth between the two versions…it is indeed a bit strange. I don’t wear a watch and don’t know what time it is most of the time and I don’t worry too much about it except if I have an appointment then I will check the time constantly on my phone to ensure I am not late as I hate being late. I did have some problem with the “fashionably late” for gathering with friends as I am more of the exact time person. If you tell me to be there at 20h, I will be there at 20h not at 20h15 or 20h20…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · June 23, 2017

      Thanks, Suzanne! I think showing up on time vs. being fashionably late is a cultural thing — and possibly quite Canadian. The one thing I never do is dare to arrive early when invited by friends, as I know how stressed out I can get when hosting. And like you, I dare not be late for appointments, even with doctors who notoriously keep all the patients waiting!

  7. francetaste · June 23, 2017

    There’s another hiccup: After 12, you no longer say quarter past or quarter till. So 6:45 is sept heure moins le quart, but 18:45 is dix-huit heure quarante-cinq, and not 19 heure moins le quart.
    When I lived in Kenya it was even more complicated. On the equator, the sun rises and sets at the same time all year, give or take 10 minutes at the solstices. So 7 a.m. is 1 o’clock (saa moja), 8 a.m. is 2 o’clock (saa mbili), etc. It’s a completely logical way to look at time, except that they weren’t consistent, especially when dealing with foreigners. When somebody gave you a time to meet, you had to specify which time they meant.

    • MELewis · June 23, 2017

      That sounds super confusing…not sure I get why 7:00 a.m. is 1 o’clock though. Is the sun rise the first hour? Fascinating stuff, though, and makes our ‘moins le quart’ problems seem pretty tame.

      • francetaste · June 23, 2017

        Yes, exactly. Sunrise is the first hour of day and sunset is the first hour of night.

  8. acflory · June 24, 2017

    I grew up in a family where we were genetically ‘just a little bit late’…to everything. Now, in my dotage, I find I have to be early to everything or suffer the unbearable stress of worrying about being told off for being late [as I was in school]. What we do to our offspring… 😦

    • MELewis · June 26, 2017

      That’s funny – I think my family had similar genes! 😉 And like you, age has brought a tendency to want to avoid the stress of being late. Now I just need to work on being more zen about time!

      • acflory · June 27, 2017

        Ooooohmmmmm…. 😀

  9. poshbirdy · July 3, 2017

    I use 24 hour clock when sending messages, but seem to speak in 12 hour terms. No idea why! Am never ever ever late (get anxious just thinking about it). I am totally OK with French numerals until we get to 70, when I cannot help but revert to the Belgian habit of saying ‘septante’, which proves embarrassing in France

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