English As She Is Writ - part ten

High Noon - a detour

I warned you that from time to time I would veer away from punctuation to discuss other topics. Here is one such deviation, tangentially linked to punctuation: how to write the time of day.

There are a number of ways we report the time.

The most logical is also the one least often used, other than in timetables, the armed forces, and most of the non-English-speaking world: the 24-hour clock. Times using this method are usually written as hours and minutes, each consisting of two digits, the pairs of digits separated by a full stop or a colon: 02.24; 11.00; 19:15; 23:25. These times would usually be rendered in speech as ‘oh-two twenty-four’; ‘eleven hundred hours’; ‘nineteen fifteen’; ‘twenty-three twenty-five’. It’s a coherent, consistent, unambiguous system. It allows little scope for misunderstanding, and therefore it is of little interest in an opinion piece such as this. I will move on.

In speech and in writing, most people in the English-speaking world report time using the much less sensible 12-hour system: the twenty-four hours of the day are divided into two equal sections, each of twelve hours, starting (in terms of whole hours, and using the twenty-four system) at 01.00 and starting again (with, confusingly, exactly the same names for the hours) at 13.00. The first twelve hours are referred to as the morning; the second twelve hours as the afternoon, evening and night.

The double-twelve-hour system is reported in speech and writing in several ways.

In speech, it is usual simply to state the hour and minutes, without further specification: ‘I’ll see you at eleven’; ‘the film starts at three-thirty’; ‘be there by a quarter to eight’. In every case both speaker and hearer understand from the context whether the time stated is in the morning, afternoon, evening or night. No problems here.

No problems, either, when – whether in speech or writing – we refer to hours as ‘o’clock’ (which is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘of the clock’). ‘Let’s meet at twelve o’clock’; ‘the murder must have been committed no later than eight o’clock’ – in these cases, again, the context discloses the time of day. [Note the use of the apostrophe to indicate elided words – more on this in later instalments.]

Moreover, both in speech and writing it’s possible and common to provide clarity as to the intended time of day by mentioning it: ‘I’ll see you at twenty-five-past ten in the morning’; ‘play resumes at four in the afternoon’; ‘we didn’t eat until half-past ten at night’. Still no problems.

Ah. Here are the problems. They start when we try to specify times, particularly in writing, using the abbreviations am and pm. Suddenly we are on thin ice.

The letters ‘am’ stand for ‘ante meridian’; ‘pm’ stands for ‘post meridian’. From the Latin, you understand.

The meridian is midday; twelve hundred hours; twelve noon. ‘Ante’ means before; ‘post’ means after. ‘Am’ therefore means ‘in the morning; during the forenoon period’; ‘pm’ means ‘in the period after noon’.

You might think that having these concise abbreviations, used to indicate whether a time is before or after midday, would be incredibly helpful. In many instances they are. But when the time being reported is anything to do with midday or midnight, all common sense seems to desert speakers and writers.

It should be obvious that there cannot be any such time as either ’12 am’ or ’12 pm’. Twelve noon is midday – it is neither ante nor post the meridian. It is the meridian. Twelve midnight, conversely, is both ’12 pm’ and ’12 am’, being twelve hours after one meridian and twelve hours before the next.

What is really irritating is that once it’s understood that ‘am’ means ‘in the morning’ and ‘pm’ means ‘in the afternoon or evening’ it should be impossible to refer to ‘twelve am’ or ‘twelve pm’. If you were arranging to meet a friend at midday you would not refer to that time as ‘twelve in the morning’ or as ‘twelve in the afternoon’; you’d say or write ‘noon’, or ‘midday’, or ‘twelve noon’, for instance. Everyone knows that twelve noon is not in the morning and not in the afternoon: it’s commonly understood that twelve noon marks the point at which the morning has ended and the afternoon is about to begin. It is therefore mystifying that particularly in writing people repeatedly attempt to stipulate a twelve noon appointment as occurring at 12 pm (or, less commonly, 12 am).

All times other than the exact hours of midday and midnight can be denoted as am or pm. 12.05 am is five minutes past midnight; five minutes past twelve in the morning (ante meridian). 12.15 pm is a quarter past twelve in the afternoon (post meridian).

But twelve noon is simply that: twelve noon, or just noon, or midday. It is neither am nor pm. Twelve midnight is twelve midnight, or just midnight.

And if writing or typing the words noon or midnight seems onerous: use the twenty-four-hour system.

Here ends the detour. I’ll get back to punctuation in the next instalment. Probably.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

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