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Germans are said to be always on time. That is not entirely true. Of course, we Germans are also late from time to time. But it is true that we might handle things differently when it comes to talking about the time and being punctual. But before I talk about that, let’s have a look at some basic things.
Asking for time
When addressing a particular person, you can introduce your question with the polite phrase: Entschuldigung! or Verzeihung! (Excuse me!; Pardon me!). You can use these forms for both formal and informal language.
The formal way of asking for the time is:
“Können Sie mir sagen, wie spät es ist?” (Can you tell me what time it is?)
The informal way of asking for the time is:
“Kannst Du mir sagen, wie spät es ist?” (Can you tell me what time it is?”)
However, it is not always necessary to address a particular person directly. So, when you are among a group of people it is completely acceptable to merely ask:
“Wie spät ist es?” (What time is it?)
Telling full hours
There are two forms of telling full hours in German. You can either say: “Es ist … Uhr.” or “Es ist um …”. Both expressions mean “It is … o’clock.”
The only difference between these two forms is that “Es ist … Uhr” can be used with all numbers from 1 to 24, whereas “Es ist um …” can only be used with the numbers 1 to 12. All you have to do is to insert the respective cardinal number – the digits you count with.
“Es ist EIN Uhr.” / “Es ist um EINS.” (It’s 1 a.m. / o’clock.)
“Es ist fünf Uhr.” / “Es ist um fünf.” (It’s 5 a.m. / o’clock.)
“Es ist zwölf Uhr.” / “Es ist um zwölf.” (It’s 12 o’clock.)
“Es ist dreizehn Uhr.” / – (It’s one p.m. / o’clock.)
“Es ist fünfzehn Uhr. / – (It’s 3 p.m. / o’clock.)
“Es ist vierundzwanzig Uhr.” / – (It’s 12 o’clock.)
As you can see there is an additional difference when citing that it is “one o’clock”. With the form “Es ist … Uhr.” you have to pronounce number 1 as EIN and with the form “Es ist um …” you have to pronounce number 1 as EINS.
As I have already mentioned, Germans are, of course, also late from time to time, e.g. when it comes to any private events like birthday or dinner parties. For instance, when you are invited to a private party, which starts at 8 p.m., no German would be upset when you will arrive later than the official beginning but it is always advisable to let the host know about that. Germans would consider it impolite when you only show up one or two hours later without having said anything about that. According to my 8 o’clock example, it is absolutely ok to arrive between 7:55 (you should not arrive earlier) and 8:15. In case you could not make it within this time period, here are some useful phrases:
Ich komme etwas später. = I will arrive somewhat later. (You can use this phrase when you assume that you will be about 30 minutes late.)
Ich komme etwa eine Stunde später. = I will arrive about one hour later. / Ich komme so gegen 21 Uhr. – I will be there at about 9 o’clock. (This time designation ‘allows’ you to arrive between 8:45 and 9:15.)
As a rule of thumb, try to make your time designation as exact as possible and try to be there between 15 minutes before that time and 15 minutes after that time.