Telling Time in Chinese



Our fourth Numbers lesson will introduce how to ask and tell the time, as well as the duration of events.  There are quite a few new characters in this lesson, so pay attention!

點  分  鐘  秒

ㄉㄧㄢˇ    ㄈㄣ    ㄓㄨㄥ    ㄇㄧㄠˇ

1. Time

To ask what time it is, the most common way is to say:

現在 點(鐘)
now what number? o’clock

現在幾點? / 現在幾點鐘?

What time is it now?

You could also add the “-ed” particle 了 instead of 鐘, to ask the time in a softer, more polite way.

now what number? o’clock -ed


What time is it now? (Polite)

If you want to be EVEN MORE polite, you might substitute 現在 with 請問 (may I please ask…?).

please ask what number? o’clock -ed


Can I trouble you for the time? (Polite)

When telling time, the hours, minutes, and seconds are expressed with:

/點鐘 (ㄉㄧㄢˇ/ㄉㄧㄢˇ ㄓㄨㄥ) ~ o’clock (hour)

/分鐘 (ㄈㄣ/ㄈㄣ ㄓㄨㄥ) ~ minute

(ㄇㄧㄠˇ) ~ second

Here are formulas for all the different time situations.

十點(鐘) [10:00]
十點十(分) [10:10]
十點(零)五(分) [10:05]
十點十分十秒 [10:10:10]

For a.m., p.m., noon, and midnight, slap one of these on the beginning of the time:

上午 (ㄕㄥˋㄨˇ) ~ before noon (a.m.)

下午 (ㄒㄧㄚˋㄨˇ) ~ afternoon (p.m.)

中午 (ㄓㄨㄥ ㄨˇ) ~ noon

半夜 (ㄅㄢˋ ㄧㄝˋ) ~ midnight

above noon seven o’clock


7:00 a.m.

below noon seven o’clock


7:00 p.m.

十二 點(鐘)
center noon twelve o’clock


12 noon

十二 點(鐘)
half night twelve o’clock


12 midnight

Try saying all the sentences in the blue box above, both with and without the characters in parenthesis.  Now do it again, but while adding A.M., and then P.M.  Finally, try to say what time it is right now!


2. Quarter & Half Hours

(ㄎㄜˋ) ~ one quarter

The following formulas are for saying “a quarter past”, “half past”, and “three quarters past the hour”.  Hopefully you still remember 半 (half).

兩點一刻 [2:15]
兩點半 [2:30]
兩點三刻 [2:45]

刻 is less common these days, but 半 is still used frequently.  Again, try using all three versions of the grammar pattern to say a variety of times, and practice whenever you look at your watch!


3. Minutes to the Hour

In English, when we want to say “X minutes to Y hour”, or “X of Y”, we put the minute value first.  Chinese does the same thing, though this way of speaking is extremely rare nowadays.

short of eight minutes three o’clock


Eight minutes to three. (2:52)

You can use 差 for other quantities of time as well.

一刻 點(鐘)
short of a quarter six o’clock


A quarter to six. (5:45)

And finally, you can use it in relation to other time values.

short of one minute twelve o’clock half


A minute to 12:30. (12:29)

Again, this form is pretty rare nowadays.  Just learn it in case you hear someone else say it, but don’t worry too much about using it yourself.

4. 幾點 (ㄐㄧˇㄉㄧㄢˇ) ~ What time?

You already learned how to ask what time it is now, with 現在幾點.  To ask what time other things are, were, or will be, just replace 現在 (now) with whatever you like.

幾點 下班
you what time? finish work


What time do you get off work?

今天 幾點
you today what time? get up bed


What time did you get up today?

看看 幾點
look what time? -ed


Look at the time!

In the examples above, there is no distinction between the past and the future.  This is the norm in Chinese!



5. 什麼時候 (ㄕㄣˊㄇㄜ˙ ㄕˊㄏㄡˋ) ~ When?

Another way to ask when something happened, or will happen, is with 什麼時候.  Literally it means “what time”; but it’s closer in meaning to “when”, because it can be used to ask what day, date, month, and year, in addition to time of day.  幾點, on the other hand, can only be used to ask the time of day.

you when return home


When will you return home?

什麼時候 中國
you when? go China


When are you going to China? OR When did you go to China?

(Depends on context.)

When asking about the time of day some event is to happen, both 幾點 and 什麼時候 can be used interchangeably, EXCEPT when asking what time it is NOW.  In that case, you must use 幾點; never use 什麼時候!

現在幾點?  OK!

現在什麼時候?  NO!

天   小時

ㄧㄢ        ㄒㄧㄠˇˊ

6. Relative Time

By the way, when you’re saying an amount of time, instead of an actual time, the rules change for some of the time values..

Time vs. Lengths of Time

Year 1
1 year
1 month
1 week
the 1st
1 day
1 o’clock
1 hour
1 minute
1 second

As the chart shows, years, minutes, and seconds undergo no change when expressed as a length of time.  Months and weeks are distinguished by adding the measure word 個.  Only days and hours require learning new vocabulary:

(ㄊㄧㄢ) ~ day (for counting days)

小時 (ㄒㄧㄠˇㄕˊ) ~ hour (for counting hours)

Be sure to note which units of time require the measure word 個, and which do not!

Now that we know amounts of time, we can start talking about when things happen in relation to other things.

之前   之後
以前   以後

ㄓ ㄑㄧㄢˊ        ㄓ ㄏㄡˋ
ˇㄑㄧㄢˊ        ㄧˇㄏㄡˋ

7. Relative Time

The question “What time is/was X?” can also be answered with a relative time, like “In five minutes,” or “Five minutes ago.”  Any statements like this can be made easily, with the proper application of 之前 (before) and 之後 (after).

之前 (ㄓ ㄑㄧㄢˊ) ~ before

之後 (ㄓ ㄏㄡˋ) ~ after

我們 之前 過了
we before eat finished


We have eaten.

我們 之後 吃飯
we after will eat


We will eat later.

You can also use 以前 and 以後 instead, with almost no change in meaning.  (之前 and 之後 are generally more common, though.)

以前 (ㄧˇ ㄑㄧㄢˊ) ~ before

以後 (ㄧˇ ㄏㄡˋ) ~ after

我們 以前 過了
we before eat finished


We have eaten.

我們 以後 吃飯
we after will eat


We will eat later.

To say that you ate before a certain event, just put it before 之前 or 之後.

我們 開會 之前 過了
we hold a meeting before eat finished


We ate before the meeting.

我們 開完會 之後 過了
we finish a meeting after eat finished


We ate after the meeting.

When using another event or a time value, you can shorten 之前 and 之後 to just 前 and 後.

我們 開會 過了
we hold a meeting before eat finished


We ate before the meeting.

我們 開完會 過了
we finish a meeting after eat finished


We ate after the meeting.

To say the time of an event in relation to now, use the same format as above, but with a time value instead of another event.

我們 五分鐘 過了
we five minutes before eat finished


We ate five minutes ago.

Combining time values with other events looks like this:

我們 開會 五分鐘 過了
we hold a meeting five minutes before eat finished


We ate five minutes before the meeting.

我們 開完會 五分鐘 過了
we finish a meeting five minutes after eat finished


We ate five minutes after the meeting.

And finally, let’s do the same for future events.  Notice the addition of 會在 and the return of 吃飯.

我們 會在 開會 吃飯
we will hold a meeting before eat


We will eat before the meeting.

我們 會在 開完會 吃飯
we will finish a meeting after eat


We will eat after the meeting.

我們 會在 五分鐘 吃飯
we will five minutes after eat


We will eat in five minutes.

我們 會在 五分鐘 開會 吃飯
we will hold a meeting five minutes before eat


We will eat five minutes before the meeting.

我們 會在 開完會 五分鐘 吃飯
we will finish a meeting five minutes after eat


We will eat five minutes after the meeting.

And here’s a quick recap!

We have eaten.我們之前吃過了
We will eat later.我們之後會吃飯

We ate before the meeting.我們開會前吃過了
We ate after the meeting.我們開完會後吃過了
We ate 5 minutes ago.我們五分鐘前吃過了
We ate 5 minutes before the meeting.我們開會五分鐘前吃過了
We ate 5 minutes after the meeting.我們開完會五分鐘後吃過了

We will eat before the meeting.我們會在開會前吃飯
We will eat after the meeting.我們會在開完會後吃飯
We will eat in 5 minutes.我們會在五分鐘後吃飯
We will eat 5 minutes before the meeting.我們會在開會五分鐘前吃飯
We will eat 5 minutes after the meeting.我們會在開完會五分鐘後吃飯

多久   多長

ㄉㄨㄛ ㄐㄧㄡˇ     ㄉㄨㄛ ㄔㄤˊ

8. How long?

There are actually two ways to ask how long something is.  The first way is very simple.  Say the event in question, followed by either one of:

多久(時間) (ㄉㄨㄛ ㄐㄧㄡˇ ㄕˊ ㄐㄧㄢ) ~ how long?

多長(時間) (ㄉㄨㄛ ㄔㄤˊ ㄕˊ ㄐㄧㄢ) ~ how long?

Of these four options, 多久 is the most common.

中文 多久
you study Chinese language how long? -ed


How long have you studied Chinese?

*(Notice the use of optional 了 to add politeness.)

日本 多久
you at Japan want stay how long?


How long will you stay in Japan?

*(Notice the use of optional 要 to signify future tense.)

you wait how long? -ed


How long did you wait?

*(Notice the use of optional 了 to both signify past tense and add politeness.)

台南 多久
take automobile to Tainan needs how long?


The bus to Tainan takes how long?

The second way is by using 幾 in front of a time value.  It’s used the same way as 多久 and 多長, but it’s more specific, because it asks about a particular unit of time.  It’s also more difficult for beginners, because it’s meaning can change depending on the context.

Take a look at some of the different meanings 幾年 is capable of:

台灣 幾年
you located in Taiwan how long?


How many years have you stayed in Taiwan?

台灣 幾年
you come Taiwan what year?


What year did you come to Taiwan?

Because 幾年 is the same for “what year?” as it is for “how many years?”, its meaning depends on whether you are asking about a perpetual action like 在 (to be located in), or an instantaneous action like 來 (to come).  Time values that are different in the two situations (like 幾點 vs. 幾個小時) don’t have this problem.

In situations where the speaker is obviously not asking a question (like when you are talking about yourself), 幾年 takes on the meaning of “a few years”.

台灣 幾年
she stayed in Taiwan a few years


She stayed in Taiwan for a few years.

This meaning is probably the most common use of 幾年, with 多久 the most common way of asking “how long”.

To answer a 多久 question, you have two options.  You can give a time value (like in Section #6 above), or you can use  從 X 到 Y  (from X to Y).  Remember 從 and 到?  You learned them in Numbers, Part 2 (#5)!

台灣 五年
I stayed in Taiwan five years


I stayed in Taiwan for five years.

二零一零年 台灣 二零一五年
I from 2010 stayed in Taiwan to 2015


I stayed in Taiwan from 2010 to 2015.

Holy mess that was a lot of stuff!!  In the next lesson, we’ll tackle the basics of Math in Chinese!

Next: Math