Real English Conversations: Telling time in English 1

Posted on April 1, 2010
Filed Under British vs. American English, Grammar and usage, Intermediate, Real English conversations |

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Hi, Lori here welcoming you to another episode of Real English Conversations from Today’s conversation is about some of the differences between American and British English usage when it comes to telling time. This conversation also marks the first appearance of my very own mom here on B@E. She give us her perspective on American usage, while my English friend Michael (whom you know from earlier podcasts) returns this episode to cover the British point of view. This episode follows directly from the previous episode, number 44, so if this is your first time listening to our podcasts you should listen to episode 44 first.

The pdf that goes with this episode contains the full transcript, the vocabulary list, the image of clocks that I used to elicit time expressions from my mom and Michael, and some usage notes about time expressions in British and American English. You can download it directly in iTunes, or visit and download from there. I think that’s enough introduction for today — let’s get on with the conversation!

Conversation Transcript

[Lori:In this informal language experiment, I showed my mom a picture of four clock faces and asked her to read me the times. This was to see what prepositions she would use, particularly if she would avoid the preposition past as Yvette's former teachers claimed Americans do.]

Mom: OK, well starting on the top left I have ten m minutes after nine, and then the next one to the right is twenty-five after seven, and then on the bottom left is five past six and the last one on the bottom right is a quarter past twelve.
Lori: OK! Perfect! You scored 100%
Mom: Wow, I got 100%! I do know how to tell time on a regular analog clock!
Lori: OK…now this is very interesting because you are a native American speaker, and you haven’t had…I doubt you’ve had much exposure to British English and definitely not ever had to teach English using British English materials or anything like that.
Mom: No, for sure.
Lori: Yeah, the problem that sometimes when non-native speakers are learning English, teachers will tell them misguided rules that they maybe read in some outdated book somewhere saying things like, “In American English you have to use after when you talk about time; you can’t use past.”
Mom: Yeah, I think one time I said past..I think I said five past six. In fact I purposely said past because I was trying to give you some variety of the difference…we can tell time…because Americans will say past.
Lori: Yeah! That’s what I think as well, that I…maybe naturally I’d be more likely to say after but I wouldn’t think it was weird or strange if someone said past.
Mom: No…no, that’s exactly…’cause…I think the first couple of times I said after and then I thought, “Oh I’m going to give her a little variety,” so I’ll say five past six because we do say that, but it’s…I mean we wouldn’t think it’s odd.
Lori: OK, that’s great, and that’s really just the point I wanted to make… that often…
Mom: In fact I think we especially do it with with…on the half hour, we say half past twelve.
Lori: Right, right, half past twelve, definitely. Yeah, you wouldn’t say half after twelve.
Mom: Nuh-uh, we always say past for then. See, we use both.
Lori: And the interesting thing is I used analog clocks on purpose because I was worried that if I just wrote the times in digital time you would have said, for example, seven twenty-five.
Mom: Exactly, ’cause that’s what you see on a digital clock.
Lori: So anyway, that was my little experiment!
Mom: OK!


[Lori: After doing the experiment with my mom, I went on and did the same experiment with Michael to get the British perspective.]
Lori: …and read the times that you see on the clocks.
Michael: Yeah, it’s ten past nine… that’s from the top left. The top right is twenty-five past seven. The bottom left..err..five past six, and the bottom right one is quarter past twelve.
Lori: OK, cool! You’ve also scored 100%. You can tell time on an analog clock!
Michael: [laughs] Yay!
Lori: And the reason that I asked you to do this is…I had a discussion with Yvette the other day and she remembered learning when she was studying English, umm — she’s had both…been exposed to people, you know, trying to teach her British English and American English — and she somehow was told that if you’re going to speak British English you have to say past just like you just did, like, it’s ten past…
Michael: It’s true as well, it’ fact, I can tell you that…I mean she’s absolutely right. I mean, never mind the experimenting, that is how we are taught. And I’ve never heard anybody say ten after, you know, three or something like that until I met an American person.
Lori: OK! OK, but did you still understand it the first time you heard…did it cause any problems?
Michael: Oh it didn’t cause any any confusion… you say 10, you know five past, ten past quarter past, twenty past, twenty-five past.
Lori: Uh-huh.
Michael: And when it’s around it’s around, it’s twenty-five to, twenty to, quarter to, ten to, five to…
Lori: Right.
Michael: But I’ve heard some American people say ten till..
Lori: Oh yeah, ten till six, yeah quarter till, um-hmm.
Michael: You never ever ever ever ever say that in British English, it’s always past and it’s to and it’s drummed into you.
Lori: OK, that’s quite interesting.
Michael: There’s no variation whatsoever, but people can understand obviously, I mean you’d have to be a bit of a [bleep] jerk to…
Lori: Um-hmm.
Michael: Being deliberately obtuse if you’re going, “Huh? I don’t get it.” You know, because it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain, you know, what it means. But it is…it stands out as being unusual ’cause this is… yet we have this little clocks with the, you know, the movable hands.
Lori: Yeah, analog clocks.
Micheal: Yeah!
Lori: In fact, I was quite cunning when I made the picture to send to you. I made…I used analog clocks on purpose just to elicit the preposition past, ’cause if I had just written the times, like in digital format, you probably would have said things like…
Michael: Nine ten…yeah. But I don’t…I don’t say times like that anyway. I always do it the old-fashioned way. even after the advent of digital things because my dad would belt me if I said it, err, you know, the digital way, I’d… seriously, I’d get in trouble when my parents would yell at me.
Lori: Oh, that’s funny why, why…Did they ever say why they didn’t like it?
Michael: Yes, they felt it was dumbing things down, err, and it meant that you know you wouldn’t be learning you wouldn’t know how to tell the time properly. Err, because if you just read it out like that…err…and…I mean I think they had a very good point, because if you, you know, if you only knew how to tell the time like that and then you were at, oh I don’t know, some big train station somewhere where they had an analog clock and you’re going, “Oh, umm, let me work out bla bla bla,” you know, it’s…it’s not so good.
Lori: Yeah, it’s definitely, I think, everyone needs to know how to tell time on an analog clock but I wouldn’t go so far as to force people to use that every time they were talking about time because I think the digital system is so established now and it really makes perfect sense.
Michael: Yeah, and my, I mean, I can hear you hang on my parents are total [bleeping] Nazis when it comes to…
Lori: [laughs in disbelief]
Michael: But anyway… I love them but they’re…you know…misguided in the extreme.
Lori: You know I’m going to have to bleep you out now.
Michael: [laughs]
Lori: We’re not recording for Uncensored English!

Final Words

That’s all for this time. Of course, in these spontaneous conversations we can’t cover all of the usage issues that apply, and sometimes the examples we come up with on the spot might not be the best from a teaching perspective. So to make up for that I’ve added some extra usage notes to the pdf file for this episode. I hope you find them useful. Thanks for listening, and bye for now!

See the PDF for the Vocabulary list and usage notes.

Real English Conversations: Perfectionism 2

Posted on March 15, 2010
Filed Under British vs. American English, Learning tips, Listening, Real English conversations, Upper intermediate |

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Hi, Lori here welcoming you to another episode of Real English Conversations from In today’s conversation, my friend Yvette and I continue our discussion about perfectionism. The main focus of this part of the conversation is how perfectionist tendencies can cause problems in foreign language learning, particularly for adult learners. Another thing that comes up is a couple of usage differences between British and American English. So without further ado, here is the conversation:

Conversation Transcript

Lori: But you know, speaking about correction, it’s kind of interesting when you think about learning a language as an adult, how perfectionism and having, like, demands on yourself when it comes to performing…I think that’s one of the biggest differences between learning the language as an adult and, then, picking one up as a child.

Yvette: Yeah I remember when I was in university at the very beginning in the first year I spoke British English with a British English accent, and I was studying American English or American studies. And I had a lot of American-speaking professors who, umm, just, you know, I thought it was really odd to be using British language to talk to an American professor, so I switched to American English, which was really frowned upon because it was not the “proper” language. And everything that you did, every word you used, you had to think, “Is this the proper American word or is it a British-ism?” Because it was…you were punished much more severely for using British-isms as an American speaker than if you were a British speaker using American words. It was really weird.

Lori: Yet there’s this kind of weird…at least in some classroom contexts…there’s this weird elitism when it comes to British English and American English, and like there’s these weird synthetic rules about what you’re allowed to say and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. And, you know, native speakers out in the world, they mix and match as they see fit.

Yvette: Right. Right, because, like, I would have to look out and make sure that I didn’t use the word “pavement,” and you can say that very American-like…pavement…and then they would be like, “No, it’s ‘sidewalk.’ So, you’re wrong.” And it’s like, “Oh, you know what I mean, though!”

I know that I got punished for that, and there were other things like “ten after six” or “ten past six”…I, you know, if you say something like “ten past six” in American voice it’s really wrong because you have to say “ten after six,” which is something I didn’t even know until I was corrected. And it was like, “Oops, I didn’t know there was a difference.”

Lori: Wow, well, speaking as American I would say say that’s something I didn’t even know.


Yvette: There you go! So, but then you get to the perfection level, then you want to be absolutely correct.

Lori: But yeah, sometimes I wish I could get back to the state that I remember having as a kid. You know — when I’m trying to create something and start battling with perfectionist tendencies and procrastination and all the demands I place on myself, and the ones that I imagine that other people are placing on me — I wish I could just throw it all out the window and just approach it with the carefree abandon that I remember having as a little kid.

Yvette: The thing of course is when you…now you work, and it actually…you make money doing things and people expect a certain standard of you, and you try to hold to that standard but often that standard is in your own head and it’s not even what they’re expecting you to do. So you end up doing a lot more work for something that is really not worth the money that you get paid for it.
Lori: Yeah. There is that as well.

Yvette: On top of that! But you know, as a kid I think I was already quite perfectionist in everything, I… everything had to be perfect, everything had to be done properly.

Lori: Yeah.

Yvette: And I felt like I was going to get punished if I didn’t, so that — not to say anything bad about my parents, but, because I don’t think they ever held me to that standard; they always said, “Do your best and that’s good enough.” But for me it had to be perfect, and then it’s maybe “okay.”

Lori: Yeah. Yeah, but, but even so I can still remember, like, approaching new things and just being willing to just try new things that I knew I was going to suck at, because there’s no way you can be good at something right at the very beginning. And it just didn’t matter; you were willing to just give it a go anyway. And now I really sympathize with the people, my, my students that I used to have when I taught English, my adult students, how horrible it can be to sit in a group…and you know you need to try to speak the language but you know you’re going to make mistakes and you know it’s not going to be right but you have to force yourself to try anyway. And it’s…I think, yeah, for people like me anyway, it’s really hard to force yourself to do that.

Yvette: Well yeah it is, it is about letting go of the judgment that other people are going to have. You know, when I, went I went to the United States for the first time and I felt really kind of embarrassed about speaking English, people were very surprised that you were able to even speak the language and understand what they were saying because they had no idea of what you were saying if you spoke Dutch. I mean, they were like, you know, I could switch to Dutch and they were like, “I don’t know, that sounds really strange and odd.” And so that kind of helped me along at the time because I knew that my, you know, what I could do or how I could speak was better than what they could speak my language, and they very often would say, “Well, you speak better English than I do.” And I thought, “Oh, I don’t think so.”

Lori: Yeah, well you know most…your English is fantastic, as you know, as I’ve often told you.

Yvette: Well, thank you.

Lori: But…

Yvette: That’s right!

Lori: But, even so, most Americans, they’re just amazed that anyone can speak a language other than their own, because even though I think most of us do study a foreign language in high school, oftentimes it never gets past the classroom level, you know, the school level, where really, you can do okay on written tests but you can’t really have a conversation.

Yvette: Yeah, and that’s the thing, and it’s also, you know, other little phrases that people use all the time when they speak, which is probably what this is all about. it’s just speaking and listening to people just talking…normal phrases instead of these textbook phrases that nobody understands anyway. I mean, or nobody uses.

Lori: Yeah, they’re so far removed from what you hear out in the real world that it’s…

Yvette: Right. “I would like a hotel room…”

Lori: Please, for one. Please.

Yvette: With a bath. With a bath and a shower.


Final Words

That’s all for this time. In our next conversation, we’ll be talking about some of the British and American English usage questions that came up in this conversation, particularly with respect to the prepositions “past” and “after” when talking about time. As always, the full transcript and vocabulary notes for this podcast are available on our website, Thanks for listening, and bye for now!

Vocabulary list
Download full vocabulary notes here

Picking one up
frowned upon
mix and match
look out
There you go!
throw it all out the window
carefree abandon
end up
there is that
on top of that
give it a go
letting go
far removed

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