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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
You still haven't answered my question. Can the up voter do? –  Kris May 18 '13 at 4:04

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 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

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