Learn How to Tell Time in French

Young woman telephoning with smartphone while checking time
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Whether you're traveling to France or learning the French language, being able to tell time is important. From asking what time it is to key vocabulary you need for speaking in French about hours, minutes, and days, this lesson will guide you through everything you need to know.

French Vocabulary for Telling Time

To begin with, there are a few key French vocabulary words related to time that you should know.

These are the basics and will help you throughout the rest of this lesson.

timel'heure
noonmidi
midnightminuit
and a quarteret quart
quarter tomoins le quart
and a halfet demie
in the morningdu matin
in the afternoonde l'après-midi
in the eveningdu soir

The Rules for Telling Time in French

Telling time in French is just a matter of knowing the French numbers and a few formulas and rules. It's different than we use in English, so here are the basics:

  • The French word for "time," as in, "What time is it?" is l'heure, not le temps. The latter means "time" as in "I spent a lot of time there."
  • In English, we often leave out "o'clock" and it's perfectly fine to say "It's seven." or "I'm leaving at three-thirty." This is not so in French. You always have to say heure, except when saying midi (noon) and minuit (midnight).
  • In French, the hour and minute are separated by h (for heure, as in 2h00) where in English we use a colon (: as in 2:00).
  • French doesn't have words for "a.m." and "p.m." You can use du matin for a.m., de l'après-midi from noon until about 6 p.m., and du soir from 6 p.m. until midnight. However, time is usually expressed on a 24-hour clock. That means that 3 p.m. is normally expressed as quinze heures (15 hours) or 15h00, but you can also say trois heures de l'après-midi (three hours after noon).

    What Time Is It? (Quelle heure est-il?)

    When you ask what time it is, you will receive an answer similar to this. Keep in mind that there are a few different ways to express different times within the hour, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with all of these. You can even practice this throughout your day and speak the time in French whenever you look at a clock.

    It's one o'clockIl est une heure1h00
    It's two o'clockIl est deux heures2h00
    It's 3:30Il est trois heures et demie
    Il est trois heures trente
    3h30
    It's 4:15Il est quatre heures et quart
    Il est quatre heures quinze
    4h15
    It's 4:45Il est cinq heures moins le quart
    Il est cinq heures moins quinze
    Il est quatre heures quarante-cinq   
    4h45
    It's 5:10Il est cinq heures dix5h10
    It's 6:50Il est sept heures moins dix
    Il est six heures cinquante
    6h50
    It's 7 a.m.Il est sept heures du matin7h00
    It's 3 p.m.Il est trois heures de l'après-midi
    Il est quinze heures
    15h00
    It's noonIl est midi12h00
    It's midnightIl est minuit0h00

    Asking the Time in French

    Conversations regarding what time it is will use questions and answers similar to these. If you're traveling in a French-speaking country, you'll find these very useful as you try to maintain your itinerary.

    What time is it?Quelle heure est-il ?
    Do you have the time, please?Est-ce que vous avez l'heure, s'il vous plaît ?
    What time is the concert?
    The concert is at eight o'clock in the evening.
    À quelle heure est le concert ?
    Le concert est à huit heures du soir.

    Periods of Time in French

    Now that we have the basics of telling time covered, expand your French vocabulary by studying the words for periods of time. From seconds to millennium, this short list of words covers the entire expanse of time.

    a secondune seconde
    a minuteune minute 
    an hourune heure
    a day / a whole dayun jour, une journée
    a weekune semaine
    a monthun mois
    a year / a whole yearun an, une année
    a decadeune décennie
    a centuryun siècle
    a millenniumun millénaire

    Points in Time in French

    Each day has various points in time that you might need to describe in French.

    For instance, you might want to talk about a beautiful sunset or let someone know what you're doing at night. Commit these words to memory and you'll have no problem doing just that.

    sunrisele lever de soleil
    dawnl'aube (f) 
    morningle matin 
    afternoonl'après-midi 
    noonmidi
    eveningle soir 
    duskle crépuscule, entre chien et loup
    sunsetle coucher de soleil
    nightla nuit 
    midnightle minuit

    Temporal Prepositions

    As you begin to formulate sentences with your new French time vocabulary, you will find it useful to know these temporal prepositions. These short words are used to further define when something is taking place.

    sincedepuis 
    duringpendant 
    atà 
    inen 
    in dans 
    forpour 

    Relative Time in French

    Time is relative to other points in time. For instance, there is always a yesterday which is followed by today and tomorrow, so you'll find this vocabulary a great addition to your ability to explain relationships in time. 

    yesterdayhier 
    todayaujourd'hui 
    nowmaintenant 
    tomorrowdemain 
    the day before yesterdayavant-hier
    the day after tomorrowl'après-demain
    the day before, the eve ofla veille de
    the day after, the next dayle lendemain
    last weekla semaine passée/dernière 
    the final weekla dernière semaine
    Notice how dernier is in a different position in "last week" and "the final week." That subtle change has a significant impact on the meaning.
    next weekla semaine prochaine
    days of the weekles jours de la semaine
    months of the yearles mois de l'année
    the calendarle​ calendrier 
    the four seasonsles quatre saisons
    winter came early / late
      spring came early / late
      summer came early / late
      autumn came early / late
    l'hiver fut précoce / tardif 
      le printemps fut précoce / tardif 
      l'ete fut précoce / tardif 
      l'automne fut précoce / tardif 
    last winter
      last spring
      last summer
      last autumn
    l'hiver dernier 
      le printemps dernier 
      l'ete dernier 
      l'automne dernier 
    next winter
      next spring
      next summer
      next autumn
    l'hiver prochain
      le printemps prochain
      l'ete prochain
      l'automne prochain
    a little while ago, in a little whiletout à l'heure 
    right awaytout de suite
    within a weekd'ici une semaine
    for, sincedepuis 
    ago (depuis versus il y a)il y a
    on timeà l'heure
    in timeà temps
    at that timeà l'époque
    earlyen avance
    lateen retard 

    Temporal Adverbs

    As you become even more fluent in French, consider adding a few temporal adverbs to your vocabulary. Once again, they can be used to further define when something is taking place.

    currentlyactuellement 
    thenalors 
    afteraprès 
    todayaujourd'hui
    previously, beforehandauparavant 
    beforeavant 
    soonbientôt 
    meanwhilecependant 
    afterwards, meanwhileensuite 
    for a long timelongtemps 
    nowmaintenant 
    anytimen'importe quand
    thenpuis 
    recentlyrécemment 
    latetard
    all of a sudden, suddenlytout à coup
    in a little while, a little while agotout à l'heure

    Frequency in French

    There will also be times when you need to speak about the frequency of an event. Whether it only happens once or reoccurs on a weekly or monthly basis, this short vocabulary list will help you achieve that.

    onceune fois
    once a weekune fois par semaine
    dailyquotidien 
    every daytous les jours
    every other daytous les deux jours
    weeklyhebdomadaire 
    every weektoutes les semaines
    monthlymensuel
    yearlyannuel 

    Adverbs of Frequency

    Adverbs that relate to frequency are just as important and you'll find yourself using this quite often as your French studies progress.

    againencore 
    one more timeencore une fois
    never, everjamais 
    sometimesparfois 
    sometimesquelquefois 
    rarelyrarement 
    oftensouvent
    alwaystoujours 

    Time Itself: Le Temps

    Le temps refers broadly either to the weather or a duration of time, indeterminate or specific. Because it is such a basic concept that surrounds us every day, many French idiomatic expressions have evolved using temps. Here are a few common ones that you might need to know.

    a little while agoil y a peu de temps 
    in a little whiledans un moment, dans quelque temps
    at the same timeen même temps
    at the same time asau même temps que
    cooking / preparation timetemps de cuisson / préparation cuisine
    a part-time jobun temps partiel 
    a full-time jobun temps plein ou plein temps
    to work part-timeêtre ou travailler à temps partiel 
    to work full-timeêtre ou travailler à plein temps ou à temps plein
    to work full-timetravailler à temps complet
    to work 30 hours per weekfaire un trois quarts (de) temps
    time to thinkle temps de la réflexion
    to reduce working hoursdiminuer le temps de travail
    to have some spare time / free timeavoir du temps libre
    in one's spare time, in a spare momentà temps perdu
    in times past, in the old daysau temps jadis
    with the passing of timeavec le temps
    all the time, alwaystout le temps
    in music, a strong beat / figuratively, a high point or a highlighttemps fort
    in sports, a time-out / figuratively, a lull or a slack periodtemps mort