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

It's half past five.

But

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?

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  • It may depend on your locale. It’s certainly used in the US. It’s
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 17:47
  • 3
    doesn't sound odd to me
    – user180089
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 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
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 18:15
  • @PC Luddite ~ Chicago suburbs
    – user180089
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 18:17
  • It's the way people say it. If people don't say something and say something else, it sounds odd or wrong. Asking for a reason is like asking why we call dogs "dogs" not "chiens".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 8:29

2 Answers 2

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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.

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Because the phrase "half past" is often considered uncountable. In other words, many dialects don't use an indefinite article with it because one rarely needs to specify how many "halves past" the hour.

However, like others have pointed out, this varies depending on the dialect or even individual. Expanding the indefinite article to the equivalent cardinal quantity (i.e. a half past -> one half past) may sound more idiomatic to you and would probably be considered less of a regionalism.

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