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Telling Time in Two Ways
Nowadays, there are two kinds of clocks, the old-fashioned analog clocks with hands that move clockwise, and digital clocks with an hour separated from the minutes by a colon. The way in which digital clocks display the time has altered the verbal landscape of Spanish somewhat. It has created a new way to verbally express the hour. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages from the language-learner’s point of view.
On the one hand, the older analog system required less vocabulary in terms of numbers (1-30 are all you need), but at the same time, the way Spanish speakers reckon the hour – counting minutes after the hour until half past and then minutes until the hour after the half hour, disoriented English-speaking learners of Spanish. The newer digital displays simplify the conceptual framework but require a larger number vocabulary.
Let’s begin with the older system. The traditional analog clock face has 12 at the top and 6 at the bottom. The two hands, the longer minute hand and the shorter hour hand, move clockwise. In the traditional system for telling time in Spanish, imagine a line dividing the face of the clock from the 12 to the six. The hour is calculated from the hour shown by the position of the hour hand, let’s say, four o’clock, and the minute hand, once it has passed the 12, shows minutes after the hour.
In Spanish these minutes after the hour are counted as the hour and so minutes; thus the most conventional way to express the time of day is to say the hour followed by y (and), followed by the number of minutes after the hour. However, once the minute hand passes the half-hour mark at six, Spanish speakers express the time as the hour it is about to be, that is, the future hour minus so many minutes, using menos.
Quarter hours are expressed as y or menos quince (plus or minus 15)or y or menos cuarto (plus or minus a quarter hour). The half hour is known as the hour y media (or y treinta). Remember that the hour is feminine, because hora is grammatically feminine, and plural (except for 59 minutes in the afternoon and 59 minutes in the night when it is expressed in the singular).
Thus, the answer to the question ¿Qué hora es?, the answer will be Son las…. At those times when the hour is reckoned from one o-clock, the hour is expressed as singular. This happens for thirty minutes after one (using y) or for 29 minutes until one (using menos). For telling time from an analog clock, the highest number one needs to know is thirty. When it's on the dot, or precisely, Spanish speakers might add en punto.
Telling Time on Digital Clocks
For digital clocks, the hour is always expressed by stating the hour, in the plural – Son las… , remembering that it is singular for nearly nine hours of 24 when one would say Es la una. What has disappeared from the schema is the imaginary dividing line from the 12 to the six. Now all hours are expressed as the hour y (and) so many minutes -- the y often is omitted in speech, e.g., Son las ocho veinte (8:20 -- Eight twenty).
Spanish has three phrases: de la mañana, de la tarde and de la noche for orally expressing a.m. and p.m. Just as in English, noon and midnight have their own names in Spanish: el mediodía and la medianoche. Notice that the word for noon is masculine because día is masculine; midnight is feminine because noche is feminine.
Of course, radio announcers will throw a curve ball and express the time by saying it's so many minutes para or hasta las... (until) such-and-such o’clock, or by using con (literally with) instead of y. And of course, there are places where the 24-hour military system is used even in civilian life, but what has been presented here will serve you well and prepare you for such situations, if you are alert.