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When telling time and 30 minutes has gone past an hour, we say “half past”. For instance, half past 4 or half past 5.

Why can’t we also say “half to”. For instance, half to 5 or half to 6?

Shouldn’t it be a matter of preference, as it is when a glass is said to be half empty or half full?

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Some expressions are idiomatic and some aren't. In American English, at least, half past is the standard idiom and saying half to would mark you as a poor student of English. OTOH, you can always say whatever you like if you're willing to take the consequences. (segue hyperbolique:) If your language is strange enough, you'll end up in jail or a mental institution, especially if you say whatever you like at an American airport and some zealous narc overhears and decides that you may be a security risk. –  user21497 Oct 22 '12 at 8:39
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@PeterShor I've never heard 'three quarters past' and it sounds very strange to me. A quick Google search of it throws up few credible results. –  Ina Oct 22 '12 at 13:13
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True. But people used to say it. I must have seen it in some old book. –  Peter Shor Oct 22 '12 at 13:15
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alternatively, 6:-30 –  picakhu Oct 22 '12 at 14:17
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@FumbleFingers: Could be a British England thing; start at half seven sound like it's missing a word to my American ear. –  J.R. Oct 23 '12 at 13:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 26 down vote accepted

If you make it a matter of personal preference you will defeat one of the purposes of language, which is to make your meaning clear to your listeners or readers. If no one else says half to, you may find that you will be asked to repeat what you have said in some other way. There is also a more direct risk of confusion. In British English, at least, half followed by an hour is used by some to mean half past [hour].

It's perhaps worth adding that in German, by contrast, half followed by an hour does mean 30 minutes before the hour named. Halb eins is not 'half past one', but 'half past twelve'. So there's no cognitive reason why time can't be expressed in this way.

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German, Russian, Hungarian... see the discussion on this related question. –  RegDwigнt Oct 22 '12 at 12:12
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Adding to the confusion, "half to" and "have to" (as in "need to", or "must") can be homophones depending on regional pronunciation. –  mskfisher Oct 22 '12 at 17:15

The convention is that we express the time in terms of the hour that it's closest to. "A quarter past nine", not "three-quarters to ten"; but "twenty to ten", not "forty past nine".

"Half past" is, of course, exactly in the middle. The convention is that we say "half past" rather than "half to".

Sure, there would be nothing technically inaccurate about saying "half to". But as Barrie notes, the purpose of language is to convey meaning. If you don't follow standard conventions, it is more difficult for others to understand what you mean. I wouldn't say that you should never break the conventions. But I would say that you should only break the conventions when you have a specific reason to do so, like when you are trying to emphasize something or make a specific point.

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I don't completely agree that that's the convention. Half to ten might cause me to arch an eyebrow or "alert security," but I don't think forty past ten would get the same "that's odd" reaction. If I was giving the time over the radio, I think "31 minutes past the hour" wouldn't be markedly less acceptable than "29 minutes before the hour." Here's another example. –  J.R. Oct 23 '12 at 9:53
    
@J.R. Of course if you said "the time is ten forty-two" that would be perfectly normal -- we'd normally write that "the time is 10:42". Given that, I suppose I'd be much less taken aback to hear "forty past ten" then "forty to ten". I'd also be less surprised to hear "forty-five past ten" then "three-quarters past ten". –  Jay Oct 23 '12 at 13:40

For all other times on the clock, there are unique identifiers eg quarter past, twenty-five past, twenty-five to, etc.

For half-past you could say half-to, but what would be the point? It means the same, and current accepted usage is half-past, so you might as well use that rather than use odd speech.

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"Half to" is shorter. I'm lazy. –  Henrique Ordine Oct 26 '12 at 14:18

For the reason that anything that is half to is really half past the hour just preceding.

It's probably considered better to state with reference to the past hour than the future hour in this case.

This is just my conjecture, though.

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