Arrant Pedantry

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10:30 o’clock

My sister-in-law will soon graduate from high school, and we recently got her graduation announcement in the mail. It was pretty standard stuff—a script font in metallic ink on nice paper—but one small detail caught my eye. It says the commencement exercises will take place at “ten-thirty o’clock.” As far as I can remember, I’ve never before heard a rule against using “o’clock” with times other than the hour, but it struck me as wrong.

I checked Merriam-Webster first, but it was no help; all it says is “according to the clock,” though its example sentence is “the time is three o’clock.” I then pulled out my copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, but it didn’t even have an entry for o’clock or clock. So then, because my wife was on the computer and I couldn’t access the OED online, I pulled out my compact OED and magnifying glass to see if it had anything to say.

Once I had flipped to the entry and scanned through the minuscule type, I found this one line: “The hour of the day is expressed by a cardinal numeral, followed by a phrase which was originally of the clock, now only retained in formal phraseology; shortened subsequently to . . . o’clock.” The citations begin with Chaucer and continue up to modern English.

And then, out of curiosity, I checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English, but I couldn’t find any examples of x:30 o’clock. Google, however, turned up plenty of examples, including a thread on Amazon’s Askville asking why you can’t say “11:30 o’clock.” The best explanation there seems to be that since the clock hands aren’t pointing at a specific hour, it can’t be anything-o’clock.

This answer doesn’t seem quite satisfying to me—it doesn’t explain why the hour hand has to be pointing directly at a number or why the minute hand doesn’t matter. But then I remembered that clock originally meant “bell” and that early clocks chimed on the hour (well, I suppose some modern clocks do too, but you see where I’m going). Early mechanical clocks were rather large, and most people measured time not by checking the clock face to see where the hands were, but by counting the number of chimes on the hour. So I would assume that this is why it sounds strange to use “o’clock” with fractions of hours. Thoughts, anyone?

9 Responses to 10:30 o’clock

  1. Esther Sherr says:

    Saying “ten-thirty o’clock” sounds wrong, or at least affected, and if the language on formal invitations is anything, it’s affected. So I suppose it’s OK for formal invitations, since “affected” is the tone they’re shooting for.

    I have heard “half past ten o’clock”, though, and that doesn’t jar on the ears nearly as much.

  2. goofy says:

    The etymology of “clock” explains why “o’clock” was used to not refer to fractions of hours, but I don’t think it explains why it sounds strange now to use it with fractions. After all I’ll bet that very few people know the etymology. Or am I being too arrantly pedantic?

  3. Jonathon says:

    I think you’re right that very few people know the etymology, so it’s not the etymology that governs current usage. But it could be that the etymology established the pattern of usage, which has continued throughout the centuries even though the original reason is now irrelevant.

    For example, go is missing its original past tense, and we use the suppletive form went instead. We could conceivably say goed, but this sounds strange and wrong, not for etymological reasons, but simply because no one else says it.

    My wife also pointed out that “ten-thirty” is unambiguously a time, while “ten” is not, so perhaps there’s some extra justification for using “o’clock” only with whole hours.

  4. Melinda says:

    Could it be that ‘on the clock’ or ‘of the clock’ is referring to the physical presence of a numeral 10 on the clock? That 10 is ‘of’ or ‘from’ the clock in the same way that Mr Smith may be ‘of’ or ‘from’ London? As in ‘the hour is 10, as indicated by the hour hand pointing at the ten which is of the clock face.’ 10.30 is then an interpretation of time arrived at by noting the relative position of the hands to the 10, rather than 10.30 being a specific location upon a clock face.

  5. sweavo says:

    Jonathon’s wife wins it for me. Ten-thirty o’clock is redundant, hence it hasn’t passed into common usage and sounds clunky.

    It’s probably a bad thing I’ve found this blog; I can imagine coming back here a lot to throw time at trivial details… nice work! 🙂

  6. sweavo says:

    … “I will come around at ten-thirty o’clock, more later in time than the present now.”

  7. DebWa says:

    If o’clock is to mean on the clock, and if bells were/are used to signal increments on the clock, then 10:30 o’clock would be appropriate, given the following. My grandmother’s grandfather clock chimed on the hour and on each quarter hour. A smaller bell with a distinct tinny sound signaled one bell for a quarter after, two bells for half past, and three bells for a quarter til. A bolder, louder bell chimed once for each hour.

    But if a formal invitation should be written in an affected style, it would seem that “half past”, “quarter past”, “in the morning”, or “in the evening” would be more appropriate than “o’clock”. Today, we have shortened o’clock even further to AM and PM, and either of these would be acceptable, even on the most formal of invitations.

  8. Sue says:

    I’ve heard, though I don’t remember where, that the preferred method would be “half after 10 o’clock.”

  9. Barney says:

    I don’t think you have to look at the history. I think O’clock is used after single numbers to indicate that they refer to a time, since they could as easily refer to many other things, and three of them (1,2,4) are pronounced the same or similarly as other words.

    Phrases like “six-thirty” on the other hand don’t need any extra word to indicate that they refer to times, since there’s little else they could refer to. Possibly a sports score, but its unlikely.

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