Never mind the stereotype about countries with Spanish speakers being “mañana” land! Urban people all over the globe need to keep track of the time, and Spanish speakers are no exception. People need to keep appointments, watch games, meet people, have office-hours and store-hours and say how long an event is scheduled or expected to last. Now we are going to sort out some ways of conversing about tiempo ‘time’ in Spanish.
The basic question you might need to ask, if you don’t have access to your watch or cell phone is:
¿Qué hora es? — What time is it?
It’s not a a bad conversation opener, either, in which case you would want to be more polite and considerate:
¿Qué hora es, por favor? — What time is it, please?
¿Tiene usted la hora? — Do you have the time?
Hágame el favor de decirme qué hora es. — Do me the favor of telling me what time it is.
As in English, the “be” verb is used in time expressions. Remember, there are two “be” verbs in Spanish—ser and estar. Even though we all know time is fleeting, the verb used in Spanish time expressions is ser, not estar. If it is one o’clock, or one plus any number of minutes up to two o’clock, the verb is singular es. For all other times the verb is plural son.
Es la una. — It's one o'clock.
Es la una y veinte. — It's 1:20.
(Notice the feminine article la, which agrees with the understood hora.)
Son las dos. — It's two o'clock.
Son las dos en punto. — It's exactly two o'clock.
Son las dos y media. — It's half past two.
Son las dos y cuarto. — It's two-fifteen.
Son las dos menos cuarto. — It's a quarter to two.
Son las dos y cuarenta. — It's 2:40.
Son las tres menos veinte. — It's twenty of three.
If it is necessary to specify A.M. or P.M.:
Son las cuatro de la tarde. — It's four in the afternoon.
Son las cuatro de la mañana. — It's four in the morning.
Son las diez de la noche. — It's ten at night.
[review the numbers in article How To Learn Spanish: Numbers 1-100]
But note that official times in Spanish-speaking countries are normally given on a twenty-four hour basis:
a las trece horas — at thirteen zero zero (or, incorrectly: thirteen hundred hours) (one o'clock)
a las trece horas con diez minutos — at thirteen ten (1:10)
La película empieza a las veinte horas. — The movie begins at eight o'clock.
If your bus leaves for Michoacán…
a las ocho horas
…you can be sure that it will be at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Some benchmark but non-numerical time expressions are:
a mediodía — at noon
a medianoche — at midnight
al amanecer — at dawn
al anochecer — at sunset
Notice the first two do not require an article, but the last two have the masculine article el contracted with the preposition a ‘at’. a + el becomes al.
Let’s see how some of these expressions work. Raúl and Elena are discussing their plans for the day.
Voy de compras con mamá a mediodía. — I'm going shopping with mother at noon.
Bueno, ya son las doce y media. Ya estás en atraso. — Well, it's already twelve-thirty. You are already late.
¡Ay! — Oh-oh!
Ay, no. Me equivoqué. Mi reloj está adelantado. — No, I was mistaken. My watch is fast (advanced).
El reloj de la cocina da las doce y cuarto. — The clock in the kitchen says (gives) twelve-fifteen.
En todo caso, es hora de irme. ¡Chao! — Anyway, it is time for me to leave. Chow!
The next discussion of time will continue, with parts of the day, durations of time and other time expressions–all enhorabuena ‘well and good’.