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I am referring of course to the expression describing time. Today a corporate trainer (From north Philadelphia) that is teaching a class at my company used it in the context that the current time was 'ten of six' (5:50PM), but I have always thought of it as 'ten of six' (6:10PM). Which usage is correct?

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5;50, I've heard as "ten (minutes) to six"... I have to say that sounds peculiar to my ears. –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 4:19
@J. M.: when I first came to the States, I found "of" so awkward and hard to get used to! –  Jimi Oke Dec 14 '10 at 4:27
Hmm, wow, I think I was ambiguous in that last comment; I wanted to say that "to" is what I was accustomed to, and "of" is what sounds peculiar to me. –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 4:33
by any chance, is it ten "off" six but it sounds like ten "of" six –  JoseK Dec 14 '10 at 9:37
I grew up in that area and that would have been the common usage; to/till was not used as much. Incidentally, all of these are moot when it comes to communication with my kids (late teens). They grew up with digital clocks. –  JeffSahol Sep 16 '11 at 16:50

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

As others have said, "ten of six", though not used in many English speaking areas, would be understood as 5:50.

Nowhere in the English-speaking world, as far as I know, would it be understood as 5:10. I can imagine that Russian speakers, for example, might hear it that way, as it might be taken as a translation of the Russian "десять шестого" (/d'es'at' ʃestovo/ = "ten of the sixth") which does mean 5:10.

(A similar 'false friend' is "half six", which in British English means 6:30, but looks like a translation of German "halb sechs", which means 5:30.)

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I'd say "half past six" for 6:30 to avoid ambiguity myself... on the other hand, one never hears "half to six". :D –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 13:23
You meant to write 6:10 instead of 5:10, I suppose? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 14 '10 at 13:39
Russian is a good example, but certain German dialects also have "viertel sechs" (quater six) and "drei viertel sechs" (three quarters six), meaning 5:15 and 5:45. This usage is limited to Bavaria, Franconia, Silesia, Swabia, and certain parts of Palatinate and Austria. Native German speakers from elsewhere will (at best) identify it as a Bavarian or Austrian accent, or (at worst) not understand it at all. ("Halb sechs", on the other hand, is universal to all flavours of German I am familiar with.) –  RegDwigнt Dec 14 '10 at 13:48
@Tsuyoshi: nope, it's 5:10, "ten minutes of the sixth hour". (6:10 would be ten minutes of the seventh.) –  RegDwigнt Dec 14 '10 at 13:53
Hungarian uses negyed hat "quarter six" = 5:15, fél hat "half six" = 5:30, and háromnegyed hat "three-quarters six" = 5:45. As a child, I remember how hard it was to learn this, because it made no sense to me to say "six" when the clock said 5. –  Marthaª Dec 14 '10 at 14:58

In American English, using "of" when telling the time denotes the number minutes before the upcoming hour. Thus, "ten of six" would mean 5:50 p.m. As another example, "quarter of three" would be 2:45 p.m.

In the British, "to" is used instead of "of". Thus, 5:50 p.m. would be "ten to six" and 2:45 p.m. would be "quarter to three". Americans also use "to" when telling the time.)

To indicate the minutes following the hour, "after" or "past" is used. Thus, 6:10 p.m. would be expressed as "ten past six" or "ten after six". I'm of the opinion that "past" is more commonly used in British strains, while "after" is mostly American.

While most people just say the numbers these days, e.g. "six-ten", "five-fifty", etc, "ten of--" is still quite popular, as well as "five of--", though to a lesser degree. You probably would not hear "twenty of--" or "twenty-five of--" too often.

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The pair I'm used to is "to" and "past". Thanks for this, I didn't know about this use of "of" until now. –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 4:27
Americans also use "to" and "till", probably more often than "of" (although I am sure it varies regionally) –  Peter Shor Sep 7 '11 at 13:01
"to-of," and "after-past" are probably very nearly parity in frequency in my part of the US, with "till" lagging a little behind. –  horatio Sep 16 '11 at 17:04
I think the prevalence of digital clocks are causing a shift to stating the time as "5:50" rather than "10 to 6". With a digital clock, that's a direct reading. With an old-style clock, it's very natural to say "10 to 6" as a description of the relative positions of the clock's hands. –  Jay Dec 20 '11 at 16:41
@Jimi: "few have digital watches except die-hard runners"? I haven't owned an analog watch in decades, and I am not at all athletic. Last time I bought a new watch, about 90% of the models available were digital. I'd be interested to see a survey, bu tI thought the overwhelming majority of watches today were digital. Wall clocks -- yes, most of those that I see are analog. –  Jay Dec 21 '11 at 15:19

For the origins of "ten of six", searching Google books shortly after 1800, which is when this expression seems to have originated, I came across quite a few uses of expressions such as

It wants ten minutes of six.

which makes more sense than just "ten of six", and is a cumbersome enough expression that one can see how it might be shortened to "ten of six". Such expressions seem to have been used both in the U.K. and the U.S., but (if this was indeed the origin of the phrase) were only shortened in the U.S.

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"Ten of six" probably means 5:50 but I have not heard it before.

"Ten [shy] of six" would necessarily mean "Ten less than six"

The other time prepositions,

after, past, to
such as

0-30 minutes

(6:05) 5 after 6

(6:25) 25 past 6

31-59 minutes

(6:50) 10 to 7

(8:55) 5 'til 9 or 5 until 9

I'm an American and I have not heard "of" used before in conversation (ever), but I would never associate it with the 0-30 minutes range. To me it must mean "until"

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@sova: I think it depends on where you are from. I lived in New England for four years and using "of" was standard practice in the area. In fact, I never heard "to" in the context of time. Nevertheless, any standard American dictionary will include this usage among the definitions of the word "of". –  Jimi Oke Dec 14 '10 at 4:37
@Jimi: Fascinating. I figured it might be a regional thing, but using "of" sounds British to my ears. Merriam Webster does indeed cite this as a usage: used as a function word to indicate the position in time of an action or occurrence <died of a Monday>, however their example "Died of a Monday" absolutely befuddles me. –  sova Dec 14 '10 at 4:41
@sova: However, I should have also mentioned that "to" is used both in British and American English. I have edited my answer accordingly. –  Jimi Oke Dec 14 '10 at 4:41
@sova: If you check the Oxford American Dictionaries, though, "of" is defined specifically with regard to its usage in telling the time. Someone may dispute this but, honestly, I don't think "of" is ever used in British English when telling the time. While in NE, I found it interesting that my usage of "to" was confusing to some in those parts! –  Jimi Oke Dec 14 '10 at 4:45
@Jimi Oke: I think it's worth mentioning that this was definition number 11a out of 12 (only followed by the archaic 'of' which is a replacement for 'on' such as a plague of fools ... or something Shakespearean like that). This is little indication that this is widely accepted. –  sova Dec 14 '10 at 4:45

I wonder if this particular construction has anything to do with ratios and how they may have been spoken of in the past. X:X is one way of writing out a ratio, and obviously that's also how time is written as well.

I'm not sure if "of" is any part of talking about ratios--did people ever refer to 5:10 as "10 of 5" or something? The way it's referred to now would be "5 to 10."

Even if this is the case, I don't know how you'd get from 5:50 to "10 of 6" from there. All this just occurred to me, and I thought I'd raise it as an avenue for research or thought.

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I don't believe so; one would usually read the ratio "2:1" as "two is to one"... –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 15:54

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