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In formal papers, I've always been told to avoid contractions, but unlike "do not" versus "don't", I don't think that I have ever heard "of the clock" spoken aloud.

Is there a case (aside from time travel) where "of the clock" is more appropriate?

  • 31
    No one ever expands "o'clock". I'd bet a good proportion of the population couldn't, if you asked them to. – Dan Bron Oct 4 '15 at 18:46
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    @DanBron I actually do this in spoken conversation from time to time. It invariably results in either a confused look or an amused chuckle. – barbecue Oct 4 '15 at 19:23
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    The formal versions of "2 o'clock" are "2 pm" (or 2 am) or "1400 hours". If necessary, also state what time zone you are using and if there is a daylight saving adjustment in operation. – alephzero Oct 4 '15 at 19:42
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    In formal, written use, many terms exist that are never spoken aloud, often called 'sight words', 'dictionary words', etc. The phrase you're asking about is still, if very rarely, used in both spoken and written Present Day English, by those who affect a formal, archaic phrasing, those who use such phrasing as a community identifier, and others. – JEL Oct 4 '15 at 21:02
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    The only time I can imagine "o'clock" being expanded is in an archaic or humorous sense. – Tragicomic Oct 5 '15 at 1:52
24

The first reference the OED has to of the clock is from Chaucer's Prologue dated 1386 (presumably they had clocks).

c1386 Chaucer Parson's Prol. 5 Ten of the clokke it was tho as I gesse.

The most recent reference to of the clock is from Gladstone speaking in Parliament in 1884

1884 Gladstonein Parlt. 26 Feb. 2/5 That the Speaker..be presented to-morrow at two of the clock in the House of Lords.

Various alternatives to of the clock have been used across the centuries. There is evidence for of clock 1473 & 1647; a clock 1584 - 1747; at the clock and simply clock 1509 - 1712. The first reference to o'clock in the OED is from Robert Southey - 1829

1829 R. Southey Roprecht 11, From noon Till ten o'clock

So, in answer to your question, there is no law against your using any expression you like, so long as it is decent and honest. But if you want to use of the clock you may be the first person to do so since the late nineteenth-century. But there is absolutely no guarantee that no one else has used it since Gladstone .

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    There is a clock dated to 1386 still in existence. – Andrew Leach Oct 4 '15 at 19:18
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    What is the nature of the clock? – deadrat Oct 4 '15 at 22:11
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    @deadrat If you click on Andrew's link you will be able to read all about it. – WS2 Oct 5 '15 at 8:02
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    @WS2 You're kidding me, right? – deadrat Oct 5 '15 at 8:06
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    "Of the clock" has definitely been used more recently than 1884, though perhaps not in ordinary speech. Thomas Hardy's poem "The Oxen" begins: "Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock"; I think it was published in 1915. But of course poets have always permitted themselves some archaisms for mood and/or metre. – Gareth McCaughan Oct 5 '15 at 10:25
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No. In Modern English, o'clock is not a contraction, and of the clock does not exist as an idiomatic expression. (It can occur literally, for example I saw it on top of the clock; but it doesn't exist in the sense of telling the time).

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    This is an unnecessarily didactic answer, and wrong to boot: "Modern English is conventionally defined as the English language since about 1450 or 1500." // Distinctions are commonly drawn between the Early Modern Period (roughly 1450-1800) and Late Modern English (1800 to the present)." Further, even the OED does not consider the phrase "[cardinal numeral] of the clock" obsolete, but finds it is still retained in formal phraseology, about which the OP specifically asked. There are other PDE uses. – JEL Oct 4 '15 at 20:58
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    If 'Modern English' was changed to 'modern English' then Colin Fine's answer would be correct. – chasly from UK Oct 4 '15 at 21:03
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    @JEL - Can you give an actual documented example of a community that currently and regularly uses the formulation "x of the clock"? Most us have said the phrase at some time as a joke but I know no-one who does so regularly and seriously. – chasly from UK Oct 4 '15 at 21:20
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    @chaslyfromUK, I can and will, for you. Observe that my evidence is given under protest, however: blanket and absolute statements that fly in the face of available evidence, evidence such as the mention of "formal phraseology" in the OED with reference to [cardinal] of the clock, themselves need to be supported, rather than baldly (and in this case, erroneously) stated as if they were a priori true. So, UK Parliament. The quotes in the OED are not meant to be comprehensive, but representative of claims made. – JEL Oct 5 '15 at 3:10
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    It is slightly misleading to say that the term “o'clock” is not a contraction in modern English, it was a contraction, albeit an archaic one, the difference being that it has become fixed over time. – Mari-Lou A Oct 5 '15 at 5:53
3

The phrase 'o'clock' is a linguistic fossil, and is never written as 'of the clock'.

It actually dates from the 14th century when clocks first started to be installed in churches to tell the hours. Before that, time had been computed by the position of the sun - there were twelve hours to the day and twelve to the night, so winter daytime hours were much shorter than summer daytime hours and winter nighttime hours. But hours in clock time are always the same length; so when you mentioned a time in the 14th century you needed to specify whether you meant 'three by the sun' or 'three of the clock', which could be very different times! But now we have been going by clock time for more than half a millennium, 'o'clock' no longer has that literal meaning and is just a tag to indicate that you are referring to the time.

  • Do you have evidence that that distinction was commonly made? I agree that it could have been, but I have never before encountered a claim that it was. – Colin Fine Oct 5 '15 at 18:30
3

Of the clock is used to mark time well into the 20th century, though it is largely limited to legislative record-keeping:

  • 1902 (House of Commons)
  • 1907 (New Zealand Legislative Council)
  • 1925 (Newfoundland House of Assembly)

The phrase also appears in At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish writer Brian O'Nolan:

I was acquainted of the way by angels, said the cleric, and the ladder [was . . .] conveyed to my college in a sky-carriage in the middle of last night, at two of the clock to speak precisely. (source)

The difficulty in finding these examples, however, seems proves the opposite point: that of the clock, for the purposes of keeping time, is long obsolete, especially outside the formality of legislative bodies.

  • Also the UK Parliament, which used "of the clock" through at least the 2005-6 session, and at least in the House of Lords debates. Surely, examples of contemporary use prove a phrase is not obsolete. – JEL Oct 5 '15 at 19:17
  • @JEL That's a good find; you could use that in a separate answer. – Nathaniel is protesting Oct 5 '15 at 19:20
1

For a formal paper I would use 9:00 rather than 9 o'clock, and '9 of the clock' is never used in practice.

  • What about "nine in the morning" ? No digits, no contractions no apostrophes and no ambiguity. – Mari-Lou A Oct 5 '15 at 12:10
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    @Mari-LouA: "Nine in the morning" sounds informal (or at least imprecise) to me. – Kevin Oct 5 '15 at 13:53
  • @Kevin Well, 9 o'clock could be 9.00 p.m. and it also depends on the context. If I have a business meeting, then 09.00 would be the most precise, but if I mentioned what time I arrived at work, then I see nothing wrong with "at nine in the morning". – Mari-Lou A Oct 5 '15 at 14:47
  • @kevin I struggle to understand what is imprecise about "nine in the morning". To me, it means it one precise time and no other, while "9:00" could mean two different times. I also don't see why it would be considered informal. "She was at home in the morning" is certainly not informal, so i don't see why "It was nine in the morning" would be. A phrase can be common without being informal. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Oct 5 '15 at 20:06
  • @sgroves: To me, it could be any time from 8:50 to 9:10 AM or so. 9:00 is always 9:00, particularly in 24-hour time, or when AM/PM is clear from context. – Kevin Oct 5 '15 at 20:13
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Building on the answers relating to the use of the expression in the UK Parliament, it's interesting to note that both the validity of the expression "… of the clock" and its archaism were brought out in this (perhaps vaguely humorous?) reference in the House of Commons in 2001:

"By 3.30 this afternoon, or half-past three of the clock as my right honourable Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) more correctly describes it, we are supposed to have considered nine detailed Government amendments."

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