About time

It’s interesting (to me, anyway) to think about how we order the time in our lives. It really shouldn’t matter that we just said goodbye to 2011 and then moseyed into 2012, but it did and it does. What did it really change? Well . . . something. We feel . . . different. Time marches forward, life moves on whether we want it to or not, and we are more surrounded by both the familiar and the great unknown than ever before. Like many people, I’m very attached to keeping track of my life via the four seasons. I know that sounds like a strange thing to remark, but when I lived in a place that didn’t have those seasons, I realized how significant they really are for me and many others. We say things like “They’re getting married in the spring,” or “We met last summer,” or “I always feel a delicious mix of wistfulness and contentment in the fall.” They don’t talk that way in Colombia. There, it’s the rainy season (invierno) and the rest of the year. I don’t know about the rest of Latin America. I once explained at length to my ex-boyfriend what each season represents for us and how symbolic the changing of the seasons is. We only got through the cycle once.

Maybe the liturgical calendar holds a great deal of meaning for you. Maybe it’s the sports seasons. Maybe the academic year. Maybe the growing season is what marks the upheaval and rests in your life. Whatever it is, we all need something to be able to distinguish one day from the next, one seemingly interminable period from the one on the distant horizon. Now, where was I going with this? Oh, yes. I’d quite forgot.

Time. Watch-wearers can be hard to come by in the modern reign of the cell phone, but, watch or no watch, I know you think a lot about time. Passing it, saving it, killing it, being on it. Forget years and revolutions around the sun–our daily preoccupations are ruled by minutes and seconds, ticks and tocks! We always want to be in time and on time, but the minute someone puts their hand out for some it? We have no time! Such is life. Since our conversations are so dominated by talking about time, here are some very useful things you should know. As always, these come from my experience (my blog = my experience).

How to talk about time in Spanish

1. Despite what you learned in high school Spanish, no one actually says son las seis menos veinte for 5:40, let alone son las once menos veintitrés for 10:37. Look, no one has the time to do that kind of math. The verb you need to use is faltar, which means “to be lacking.”

Faltan veinte para las seis

It’s twenty till six. (5:40)

Faltaban quince para la una.

It was quarter till one. (12:45)

You can even lop off the faltan and be fine. Veinte para las seis. What about when it’s not an increment of five, like 6:37, and it’s really important that you be precise? Like, you’re a forensic analyst and you absolutely must indicate the exact minute that the victim died. In that case, you just say las seis y treinta y siete. Only do easy math! No need to whip out a calculator or use your fingers.

2. They don’t say ¿Qué hora es? very often in Colombia and some other countries. I only heard ¿Qué horas son?, but both are valid.

3. To ask someone what time it is, especially a stranger, say, on the bus or on the street, you say ¿Tiene/s horas?

4. When generalizing about numbers (time or otherwise), a very useful and colloquial construction is por ahí. It means around, about, more or less.

Nos conocimos hace por ahí un año.

We met about a year ago.

¿Cuándo te voy a recoger? No sé, por ahí a las seis.

When am I going to come get you? I don’t know, probably around six.

When people are speaking quickly, it often comes out sounding more like por hay las seis, just so you know. (Two syllables instead of four)

5. Another useful word for approximating times is tipo. 

Normalmente se levanta tipo seis.

He usually gets up around sixish.

Te llamo tipo cuatro y media.

I’ll call you around four-thirty.

6. You can also say alrededor de, but this is a little more formal.

Vengan alrededor de las nueve.

Come around nine.

I also see a eso de online, but I never heard it in Colombia.

6. Approximations not your bag? Want to insist that someone arrive on the dot or else? That they get there at six SHARP? En punto.

Tienes que llegar a la entrevista a las seis en punto, ni un minuto más, ni un minuto menos.

You have to be at the interview at six sharp.

7. This is being pulled from the archive of old emails from the ex-boyfriend that I probably should delete but never will. According to him, Colombians consider the English to be the most punctual people in the world (NOT Americans, he made a point of saying). Therefore, they’ll sometimes say things like Soy (tan) puntual como un inglés, or even soy más puntual que un inglés. As punctual as an Englishman! More punctual, even! Ha! Let me just say that I, for one, never met any of these Colombians who allegedly fancy themselves more timely than the Brits. Lateness abounded, and nobody seemed to bat an eye.

Browsing the Internet, I also found these:

puntual como un reloj suizo (a Swiss watch)

puntual como un clavo (nail)

puntual como la muerte (death)

Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that there’s no “c” in puntual!

I’m plum out of time, simply must dash or I shan’t be on time for tea, trying to sound and act more English–more to come!

_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with these time expressions? Had you heard them before? How have you heard them used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? 


26 responses to “About time

  1. It’s been a while since I was living full-time en un país hispanohablante,so this post is fantástico! Excelente!


  2. En el caso del Perú el clima es muy variado. Hay lugares donde la temperatura llega 20 ó 30 grados bajo cero (the mountains) en invierno. En otros lugares en “invierno” la temperatura “baja” a 18-20ºC. En general no hay estaciones definidas, por ello generalmente aludimos a los meses, cuando queremos ubicarnos en algun momento en el tiempo.
    You say : “We say things like “They’re getting married in the spring,” or “We met last summer,” We would say: “(Ellos) se van a casar en setiembre (spring here)”
    or “Nos conocimos en febrero del año pasado”
    Faltan 2,3,4,5,6 y 7 :-)
    Faltan viente para las seis. It’s twenty till six. (5:40)
    We usually say “son las cinco cuarenta”
    5:10/ son las cinco y diez
    5:30/ son las cinco y media
    5:55/ son las cinco cincuentaicinco
    Faltaban quince para la una./It was quarter till one. (12:45)
    In this case we would say “son las doce cuarentaicinco”
    También algunas veces usamos “faltan….”
    Cuando alguien nos pregunta la hora la decimos tal como lo señala nuestro celular (ya casi nadie usa reloj). Si son las 7:58, decimos “son las siete cincuentaiocho” or “siete (y) cincuentaiocho” or a veces “dos para las ocho”


    • Hola Daniel,

      (Ahora ustedes son dos, no sé si ya te diste cuenta– también hay un Daniel argentino)

      Muchas gracias por los ejemplos y las explicaciones!

      Otra cosa– me fijé en que escribiste setiembre, sin la “p”. Así se usa más donde vives, cierto? Yo he visto en las novelas de García Márquez que la escribe así (así que algo literario), pero ahora que indago un poco, veo que es la forma más común en Perú y también en Uruguay. Pensando en la pronunciación, no sé si yo estoy acostumbrada a pronunciarla así o con la “p”. En todo caso, la “p” casi no se escucha… Interesante!


  3. 2. I do use “¿Qué hora es?”. Always :)
    7. That’s because we didn’t meet. I’m as punctual as a Japanese (always 10 minutes early).


    • Really???? How fascinating!

      I never heard ¿Qué hora es? during my two years. What makes you so special? Is it what the people around you say? I always like to be corrected, though. Still, that just does not jive with what I always heard. Really curious to hear the story :)

      So, does the second part come from a phrase as well? Tan puntual como un japonés? Tan puntual como un tren japonés. Cuenta, cuenta.


      • People around me say “¿Qué hora es?”, others say “¿Qué horas son?”. Both are very common, in my opinion.

        “So, does the second part come from a phrase as well? Tan puntual como un japonés? Tan puntual como un tren japonés. Cuenta, cuenta.”

        Not really. I heard Japanese people are very punctual, that’s why I mentioned it. Katie, I didn’t even know about “Más puntual que un inglés”.


        • Ok. Point taken. Thank you!

          Interesting… I had never heard it either, but I guess some people say it. What about what Daniel said above about hora inglesa? Eso me suena…


          • I asked some people about punctuality sayings, and after thinking for a few seconds, and to my surprise, some of them answered with “más puntual que un inglés”. But, in general, they don’t say that very often; they took too much time to answer.

            ¿”a las seis, hora inglesa”? Nope.


            • You are incredible! What dedication! What loyalty! I am truly in your debt.

              Thanks for the informal polling. Very telling to hear that they had to think about it– I guess it rang a very distant bell. I’ll make sure to place it in my passive memory as well.

              And thanks for nixing hora inglesa.

              Really appreciate your helpfulness.


  4. 2. ¿Qué hora es? y ¿Qué horas son? Ambas se usan con la misma frecuencia.
    3. We say ¿Qué hora tiene? or ¿Tiene(s) hora?
    4. We don’t say “nos conocimos hace por ahi un año”, “¿cuándo te voy a recoger? No sé por ahi a las seis”
    We say “nos conocimos hace como un año”, ¿cuándo te voy a recoger? No sé, a eso de las seis.
    5. “Normalmente se levanta tipo seis” . “Te llamo tipo cuatro y media.” Si dices eso aquí, nadie te entenderá (salvo un turista colombiano o una chica anglófona que haya tenido un enamorado colombiano). Aquí decimos: “Normalmente se levanta a eso de las seis”, “Te llamo a eso de las cuatro y media”
    7. “hora inglesa” sí se dice por aquí. Por ejemplo: “La reunión empezará a las seis, hora inglesa”
    Lamentablemente, en el Perú, cuando dicen que algo empieza a una hora determinada, generalmente empieza una hora más tarde :-(


  5. Muy u’til esta entrada :)
    En polaco tambie’n se usa la comparacio’n: “como en un reloj (suizo)” (“jak w [szwajcarskim] zegarku”).
    One thing that seemed strange to me in your entry was “around sixish”. I’ve been taught that “-ish” already means “around” (Like: “He’s fiftyish”), so it looks a bit superfluous to add “around”. Is such a combination found often?


    • I’m glad you found it useful. I tried to keep a healthy mix of fun and useful.

      That combination is definitely found often and, indeed, sounds best to me with the “around + -ish” even though, as you point out, it’s a little redundant. I think “He’s fiftyish” sounds fine, but with times, you have to use “at,” but that implies a precise time, so it would sound silly to say “at sixish.”

      The “ish” phenomenon is very informal, so don’t worry about it in any of your formal translations, but in colloquial speech, it is very, very common, especially with young people!


  6. “Tipo” y “a eso de” en Argentina son muy comunes entre adolescentes. (Just like me, you know :P) Más “tipo” que “a eso de”.

    ¡Saludos! :)


  7. This is the best lesson on Time that I have ever had! Bravo!


  8. Hi, Vocabat, I saw a big rat in your writing: “Faltan viente para las seis”. Can you use your super powers for telling what it is.


  9. I’ve heard from Manu that, “más puntual que una novia fea” is also a thing, although I imagine it’s only tossed around in certain company.

    you can see I’m doing some post catching up…


    • Oh, I can’t believe I forgot that one! I’ll add it to the list. It’s a little sad, though– how do you interpret it? That she always shows up on time to make sure no one better-looking steals her boyfriend? Or that, knowing she’s ugly, she’s so eager to please that she bends over backwards to be the perfect (albeit homely) girlfriend?


  10. Thanks for the post. Hopefully I haven’t embarrassed myself too much with my high school time-telling.


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