May 12, 2010

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?

Usage 17 Replies to “10:30 o’clock”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


17 thoughts on “10:30 o’clock

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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?

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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! 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

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

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

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

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    Check out this link:

    It explains it rather clearly…I had to look it up because I was dictating an operative report and 10:30 o’clock just didn’t sound right, either…I settled for half past ten in the op report…

    “There are two common ways of telling the time.

    1) Say the hour first and then the minutes. (Hour + Minutes)

    6:25 – It’s six twenty-five
    8:05 – It’s eight O-five (the O is said like the letter O)
    9:11 – It’s nine eleven
    2:34 – It’s two thirty-four

    2) Say the minutes first and then the hour. (Minutes + PAST / TO + Hour)

    For minutes 1-30 we use PAST after the minutes.

    For minutes 31-59 we use TO after the minutes.

    2:35 – It’s twenty-five to three
    11:20 – It’s twenty past eleven
    4:18 – It’s eighteen past four
    8:51 – It’s nine to nine
    2:59 – It’s one to three

    When it is 15 minutes past the hour we normally say: (a) quarter past

    7:15 – It’s (a) quarter past seven
    When it is 15 minutes before the hour we normally say: a quarter to

    12:45 – It’s (a) quarter to one
    When it is 30 minutes past the hour we normally say: half past

    3:30 – It’s half past three (but we can also say three-thirty)

    We use o’clock when there are NO minutes.

    10:00 – It’s ten o’clock
    5:00 – It’s five o’clock
    1:00 – It’s one o’clock
    Sometimes it is written as 9 o’clock (the number + o’clock)

    For 12:00 there are four expressions in English.

    twelve o’clock
    midday = noon

    Author’s gravatar

    I checked my (not too old) AP Stylebook. The only guidance it offers is that constructions such as 4 o’clock are acceptable, but 4 p.m. or 4 a.m. are preferred. It’s silent as to whether, say, 4:30 o’clock would also be acceptable.

    I thought to look at the Stylebook, because I distinctly remember The Seattle Times using o’clock for times off the hour, back in the 1960s. It seemed strange to me then, but the paper must have been following some kind of style guide. I wonder if other cities’ papers followed the same usage during that era?

    Author’s gravatar

    I always say o’clock for whatever time and people look at me like I’m a nut. And sometimes I wonder myself.

    Author’s gravatar

    When I took German in high school in the 1960’s we were taught that 10:30 is “halb elf” (half to eleven), not ten thirty, when speaking German. Is this still true and is it true of other languages? I agree with the comments posted by Dr. Burdge, but those rules may only apply to English.

      Author’s gravatar

      As far as I know, that’s still true of German. I’m not so sure about other languages, though.

    Author’s gravatar

    I was married on this day in 1991. We were getting married at 10:30 in the morning. Upon picking out wedding invitations and having to figure out the print on them, the representative had 10:30 o’clock in the morning written down and we questioned it because it looked and sounded funny. We thought it would just say 10:30 am. Apparently it’s a formal thing, although I can’t remember the exact reason we were given, I do remember being told that’s the way a wedding invitation should read. Every year we revisit that 10:30 o’clock phrase. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it since but that might be because most people do things at the top of the hour and not half past the hour and I’m not sure why it has taken me 29 years to research why!

    Author’s gravatar

    I watched an old movie on YouTube called “million dollar weekend” at around 4:45 min mark a young lady says 10:30 o’clock regarding a flight to Shanghai. It did sound strange to me but liked it – something different

    Author’s gravatar

    In the 1944 film noir classic, The Woman in the Window, the radio announcer used the term 10:30 o’clock. It sounded strange. I Googled it and it led me here.

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