In this lesson, you can learn how to talk about time in English.
You’ll learn how to use prepositions, conjunctions and other useful words and phrases to talk about time.
The things you’ll learn in this lesson to talk about time will help you in many situations: telling stories, saying when things happen, talking about the future, describing how long something lasted, and many more.
QUIZ: How to Talk About Time in English
Now, test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying this quiz.
For every question, write the missing word or words.
You will get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.
Time limit: 0
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Lori: How many times have you asked me that? It’s in December.
O: Are you sure? I thought it was in January.
L: No, it’s definitely in December, on the 23rd.
O: But that can’t be right. Her birthday was on a Saturday last year, and this year the 23rd is a Wednesday.
L: You’re thinking of her birthday *party.* She had it on the weekend before her birthday. Don’t you remember? Our car broke down and we got there at eleven.
O: Oh yeah! And then we had to stay the night there because we couldn’t drive back.
L: That’s right! Then, in the morning, remember that we had to try to call a tow truck, and we couldn’t find anyone who was working?
O: Of course! What a nightmare! What time did we get home in the end? Five? Six?
L: It was in the evening, but not too late. Maybe at six, yeah.
O: Was that the second time we went?
L: No, we’ve been three times. The first was in 2015, we were away in 2016, and then we went in 2017 and 2018. So, if we go this year, it’ll be the fourth time.
O: Has she invited us?
L: Yeah, she’s having her party on the Friday before her birthday.
O: So, on the 18th?
L: That’s right.
In the dialogue, you heard many examples of using ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’ to talk about when things are. Can you remember any? Do you know any rules about using ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’ to talk about time? Use ‘in’ for months and years. For example:
You can also use ‘in’ for parts of the day:
in the morning
in the afternoon
in the evening
Use ‘on’ with days and dates. For example:
on the 3rd
on the 20th of November
Use ‘at’ with times. For example:
at six o’clock
at five thirty
at twelve forty-five
There are a few exceptions and flexible cases. In British English, you say: ‘at the weekend’ and ‘at Christmas’, but in American English, you say ‘on the weekend’ and ‘on Christmas’. Also, although you say ‘in the morning’, ‘in the afternoon’ and ‘in the evening’, you also say ‘at night’. It’s an exception.
Let’s practice quickly! We’re going to ask you four questions. After each question, pause the video and answer with a full sentence.
When’s your birthday?
What time did you get up this morning?
When’s the last time you went on vacation?
When’s your next day off?
How was that? Could you answer all the questions? Of course, there are many possible answers, but here are some suggestions.
When’s your birthday?
You could say, ‘My birthday’s on the eighth of June.’
What time did you get up this morning?
You could say, ‘I got up at half past seven.’
When’s the last time you went on vacation?
You could say, ‘The last time I went on vacation was in May.’
L: Of course! They’re useless! They told me it’d be fixed in an hour, but it wasn’t. I called again and they promised that it’d be done by midday at the latest, but now it’s nearly two and so far nothing seems to have happened.
O: Well, I’m sure it’ll be fixed in the next few hours. Can’t you do some other work in the meantime?
L: I need the image files, which are in a shared folder. I promised my client this would be done by the end of today. Now I’m going to look bad because we can’t make our computer systems work. You should take this more seriously, you know.
O: I am taking it seriously, but we don’t have these problems all the time. Until recently, everything worked pretty well, right?
L: I wouldn’t say that. We’ve had at least five days this month when things weren’t available for an hour or more. In the long run, that lost time adds up.
O: I agree; it’s not ideal, but look: in the short term, there’s not much I can do. I’ll talk to the IT department and try to move things along. I can also call your client to explain the situation and apologise, if you like. How does that sound?
L: Sounds good.
O: OK, so we’ll talk in an hour and I’ll give you an update.
In this section, you’re going to learn how to use the prepositions ‘in’, ‘by’, and ‘until’ to talk about time in English. In this dialogue, you saw a different way to use ‘in’. Do you remember what you heard? You heard:
They told me it’d be fixed in an hour.
We’ll talk in an hour.
What does ‘in’ mean here? You can use ‘in’ plus a time period to say when something will happen. It’s most often used to talk about the future, although you might use it in the past if you’re talking about what someone said. For example:
We’ll arrive in three days.
This means that we’ll arrive three days from now. If today is Tuesday, I mean we’ll arrive on Friday. Here’s another example:
Your car will be ready in 30 minutes.
That means, if it’s one o’clock now, your car will be ready at one-thirty.
There are also phrases with ‘in’, like ‘in the short term’, or ‘in the long run’. ‘In the short term’ means you’re talking about the near future. ‘In the long run’ has the opposite meaning: you’re talking about the distant future. For example:
In the short term, he needs to focus on getting out of debt.
This means that in the near future, paying off his debt should be his priority. Next, let’s think about ‘by’ and ‘until’. Do you know the difference between these two prepositions? Look at two sentences:
She’ll be here by Friday.
She’ll be here until Friday.
What’s the difference? ‘By Friday’ means ‘any time before Friday’. If you say, ‘She’ll be here by Friday’, you mean that she’s not here now, and she’ll arrive some time between now and Friday. You don’t know exactly when she’ll arrive, but you’re sure that she won’t arrive later than Friday.
‘Until Friday’ means ‘continuously from now up to Friday’. If you say, ‘She’ll be here until Friday’, you mean that she’s here now, but she’ll leave on Friday. So, the two sentences have very different meanings.
Does your language have different words for ‘by’ and ‘until’ with these meanings? Some languages use one preposition for both meanings; if this is the case in your language, you’ll need to be careful using ‘by’ and ‘until’ in English! Let’s do a quick test. Look at four sentences.
It’ll be finished ________ six o’clock.
I can’t do anything ________ she replies to my email.
The weather will be bad every day _________ the end of the week.
I’ll send it to you ________ the end of the day.
Pause the video if you need more thinking time. Ready? Let’s look at the answers.
It’ll be finished by six o’clock.
I can’t do anything until she replies to my email.
The weather will be bad every day until the end of the week.
I’ll send it to you by the end of the day.
Did you get them all right? If so, well done! If not, remember that you can review each section as many times as you need to. What’s next to talk about time?
3. At the Same Time
Oli: Where’s Georgia? Weren’t you meeting her at the airport?
Lori: Uhh… It’s a nightmare!
O: Uh-oh! What happened?
L: I was waiting for her in the arrivals hall, but I needed the toilet. I guess while I was in there, she came out, didn’t see me and went outside.
O: These things happen.
L: Anyway, I went back and waited for a while. Then, I realised that she must have arrived already, so I went outside to look for her. You won’t believe this: as I was going down in the elevator, she was going up in the elevator on the other side, trying to find me.
O: How do you know?
L: She called me later; we’ll get to that. So, I looked around for her near the train station, but I couldn’t see her. Just as I was going to go back to arrivals, she called me.
L: The signal was really bad, so I couldn’t really hear her. I ran outside to get a better signal, and at the exact moment I got out of the doors, my battery died.
O: That’s bad luck!
L: So I went back up to arrivals, but it turns out she was going down at the same time, so we missed each other again.
O: It’s like a comedy film!
L: I wasn’t laughing at the time. I figured that she’d catch the train into the city, so I decided to just go to her hotel and wait for her there.
O: So did you meet her?
L: No, but I did find somewhere to charge my phone, so I called her. She was still at the airport.
O: And where is she now?
L: She said she’d take the train into the centre, so she’ll call me as soon as she arrives.
O: I hope she doesn’t fall asleep during the journey and miss her stop…
L: Don’t even joke about it!
Look at two sentences you heard in the dialogue.
I guess while I was in there, she came out.
I hope she doesn’t fall asleep during the journey.
Here’s a question: what’s the difference between ‘during’ and ‘while’? Both words are used to say when something happened. Specifically, you use them to talk about two things which happened at the same time, or something that happened in the middle of something else. However, they’re used in different ways. After ‘during’, use a noun. For example:
My phone rang during the film.
During my presentation, there was a power cut.
I just met my husband during my trip to Corsica.
After ‘while’, use a clause; that means you use a subject and a verb. For example:
I wasn’t paying attention while he was explaining what to do.
While I’m out, can you tidy up the living room?
I like listening to music while I’m working.
You can also use ‘at’ to talk about things which happened at the same time. For example:
At the exact moment I got out of the door, my battery died.
I went back up to arrivals, but it turns out she was going down at the same time.
You could use these in different ways; for example:
At the exact moment the train left, I saw her running into the station.
You can’t study and watch TV at the same time.
Finally, you can use ‘as’ to talk about the moment when something happened. In the dialogue, you heard these.
As I was going down in the elevator, she was going up in the elevator on the other side.
Just as I was going to go back to arrivals, she called me.
She’ll call me as soon as she arrives.
‘As’ means ‘at the moment when’. So, the first sentence means that at the moment when I was going down in the elevator, she was going up in the other elevator. ‘Just as’ has the same meaning, but it’s more emphatic. Use ‘just as’ to mean that two things happened at exactly the same time. ‘As soon as’ also has the same meaning, but it’s used to talk about the future. You use it to say that two things will happen at the same time. You can make more examples with this language, like this:
As I was walking down the street, I heard thunder in the distance.
I got to the airport just as they closed the gate for my flight.
We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.
So, in this section, you saw how to use ‘during’, ‘while’, ‘at’ and ‘as’ to talk about things which happen at the same time. Note that ‘during’ and ‘at’ are prepositions here, whereas ‘while’ and ‘as’ are conjunctions. Let’s look at one more thing to talk about time in English.
4. Duration: How Long?
Oli: Can we stop for something to eat? I didn’t have lunch and I’m starving!
Lori: I’ve been waiting for you for ages! We’re already going to be late. I think we should go straight there.
O: Come on, it won’t take long.
L: You always say that, and then you take forever.
O: That’s not fair!
L: Well, hey, you should’ve been on time. It’s not my fault you’re always late…
O: I’m really punctual these days. This is the first time I’ve been late for a while.
L: Are you serious? Every time I met you over the summer, you were at least half an hour late.
O: Yes, but since then, I’ve been mostly on time, right?
L: You’ve been less late.
O: During the last few weeks, I’ve really been trying to be on time. I know it’s a bad habit to turn up late everywhere, but it’s a tough habit to break…
L: Anyway, I don’t want to be even later than we already are. Everyone will be wondering what’s happened. Let’s just go, and you can get some food there.
O: But I haven’t eaten anything since this morning! Just stop at a shop and let me buy a snack or something. It’ll take less than five minutes, I promise.
L: Oh, alright.
If you want to describe how long something continued, what can you use? Can you remember any of the examples you heard in the dialogue? Often, to describe a period of time, you use the preposition ‘for’. For example, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for ages’. You can use this in many different ways in the past, present and future; for example:
I’ve worked here for 10 years.
I’ll be staying here for six weeks.
She lived in Paris for several months.
There are also many common phrases with ‘for’, like ‘for ages’ or ‘for a while’. ‘For ages’ means for a long time; ‘for a while’ means for some time. ‘A while’ means a time period which is not very short and not very long. It’s not very specific, but it’s useful and common when talking about time in spoken English.
Here’s a question: can you complete the missing verb in this sentence?
You always say that, and then you ________ forever.
The missing verb is ‘take’. You can use ‘take’ to say how long something will continue.
You always say that, and then you take forever.
In the dialogue, you also heard:
It won’t take long.
It’ll take less than five minutes, I promise.
You can use ‘take’ in many different situations. For example:
How long does it take you to get to work?
Getting to the airport takes about 45 minutes if the traffic’s not too bad.