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I often see English notation about time using the " and ' symbols. I have always mistaken about the two, and even their meaning.

I'm more used to "01:05:56", for example.

Which is for the hour, which is for minutes, which is for seconds?

Is it the common way to write duration of time elapsed? Do they have a special pronunciation?

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Do you mean as in on a stopwatch? If so then this is a really good question. I've only ever seen that notation in stopwatches and GPS coordinates (I assume they are related). Googling now, but nothing yet.... – David John Welsh May 17 '13 at 11:10
@DavidJohnWelsh , absolutely, like in stopwatches notation and, now that you make me think about it, also the GPS coordinates. – Stephane Rolland May 17 '13 at 11:19
Why do you think it is "English" notation? What has it to do with the language? – Kris May 17 '13 at 12:49
@Kris And you, what makes you think it is not an English notation ? Personally I only saw this on English videos or articles, thus my question. This is the reason I said I'm more used to the 02:05:21 notation. I also asked if it has a special pronunciation. The tag symbols is available in EL&U. – Stephane Rolland May 17 '13 at 13:10
A "second" is, quite literally, a "second minute". Therefore the second get the double quote/prime/whatever you wish to call it. (A "minute" is a minute part of an hour or degree.) – Hot Licks Feb 10 at 23:01

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's not particularly common for expressions of time.

It's similar to degrees-minutes-seconds: instead of decimal degrees (38.897212°,-77.036519°) you write (38° 53′ 49.9632″, -77° 2′ 11.4678″). Both are derived from a sexagesimal counting system such as that devised in Ancient Babylon: the single prime represents the first sexagesimal division and the second the next, and so on. 17th-century astronomers used a third division of 1/60th of a second.

The advantage of using minute and second symbols for time is that it obviously expresses a duration rather than a time.

From the time 01:00:00 to the time 02:34:56 is a duration of 1 hour, 34 minutes and 56 seconds (1h 34′ 56″)

Prime markers start single and are multiplied for susbsequent appearances, so minutes use a single prime ′ and seconds use a double-prime ″. They are pronounced minutes and seconds respectively in the case of durations like this.

Note that a prime is not a straight-apostrophe ' or a printer's apostrophe , although straight-apostrophes are a reasonable approximation and printer's apostrophes do occur as well.

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So the coordinate system came first, and the notation was borrowed for recording elapsed times? – David John Welsh May 17 '13 at 11:18
And for one hour, five minutes, 30 seconds, could I write 1°5'30" ? – Stephane Rolland May 17 '13 at 11:21
I believe that's the case. I'll see if I can find a canonical reference for that assertion... – Andrew Leach May 17 '13 at 11:22
I don't know... that seems wrong somehow. – David John Welsh May 17 '13 at 11:22
@StephaneRolland No. ° is for degrees. Use h for hours. – Andrew Leach May 17 '13 at 11:23

The ' and " are widely used in maps. They're hardly ever used to indicate time anymore. If you use them, be prepared for some strange looks.

The best option is hh:mm:ss. If you're only showing a pair of digits, the context will tell the reader whether it's hh:mm or mm:ss.

You can also suffix the digits with the unit, such as 1h 12m 23s but this gets long and if you're aligning many such intervals it can be difficult to compare.

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