Why is the indefinite article inappropriate in time-telling constructions with the word half, like the following:

It's half past five.


It's a half past five.

sounds extremely odd.

Why is that? An hour is composed of two halves (duh), and it certainly makes sense to talk about a half of an hour.

Things would be fine if the whole phenomenon was just ellipsis, but how on earth does ellipsis make the full form odd-sounding?

  • It may depend on your locale. It’s certainly used in the US. It’s – Jim Jul 27 '16 at 17:47
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    doesn't sound odd to me – user180089 Jul 27 '16 at 17:47
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    @V0ight Just curious where you're from, because I'm from the US (the Midwest), and it definitely sounds odd to me. – PC Luddite Jul 27 '16 at 18:15
  • @PC Luddite ~ Chicago suburbs – user180089 Jul 27 '16 at 18:17
  • @V0ight That's interesting. I live in St. Louis county, and I don't remember it ever being spoken like that, although I've probably heard it without noticing. Anyway, there are a few different dialects around here depending on where you go in and around the city and a lot more across the midwest as a whole. I may just not run in the same circles. – PC Luddite Jul 27 '16 at 18:25

While it may not feel correct to you, a half past does exist as a variant of half past. In my idiolect, it does not sound odd.

The NOW Corpus, which draws from "web-based newspapers from 2010 to the present time," has 494 occurrences of "half past" without the indefinite and only 5 occurrences of "a half past" with the indefinite.1

Here are some examples of the latter:

  1. Uncle Bill came home about a half past 10
  2. And it's a half past four and I'm shifting gear.
  3. Shortly after, around a half past ten, the ladies of Wild Flag hit the stage
  4. breathed his last a half past three o'clock
  5. every morning at around a half past seven

These may sound odd to you because your idiolect does not allow them, but they are certainly used and sound fine to some.

Assuming you're right that some speakers find the article "extremely odd" in these constructions, an interesting question is which English dialects allow the indefinite article and which ones don't. That, however, is a project for someone else.

1. The former number, 494, is slightly misleading since I was not able to purge non-temporal "half past" constructions. Regardless, the variant without the article is much more common than the one with it.


Because the phrase "half past" is uncountable. In other words, it simply isn't generally used with numbers or an indefinite article. You don't normally need to express more than one half past, because two half pasts are an hour.

However, like others have pointed out, this varies depending on the dialect or even individual. It may sound odd to you or me, but it's a fairly common occurrence.

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