The various structures to use for talking about time in French can be very different from how time-related sentence structures are framed in English. The differences are usually very simple, but in many cases they aren’t necessarily intuitive for English speakers and must be learned intentionally.
Talking about Dates
Below are the vocabulary words for the days of the week, the seasons, and the months. Notice the lack of capitalization for all of these words in French.
Days of the Week
Grammatical Structure of Dates
When writing dates, unlike English, you use cardinal numbers except for prémier (“first”). The other days will be expressed as the literal number (for example, deux instead of deuxième).
The day goes before the month, unlike how it is often written and said in English, with the month first (compare to saying “December 5th” in English). However, like in many other French to English structure differences, the conceptual gap is larger in North American English; in the U.K. and other countries, “5 December” is a common way to phrase dates.
Further, dates begin with le (and there is no contraction to l’ before vowel sounds).
le prémier juin (“The first day of June”)
le onze décembre (“The eleventh of December”; “11 December”)
le 2 mai, 2017 (“The second of May, 2017”; “2 May, 2017”)
The only exception to the requirement to begin dates with le is if they are expressing an event that takes place on a certain date.
Je chante le lundi. (“I sing on Mondays.”)
Je chanterai lundi. (“I will sing on Monday”, meaning this specific Monday)
When expressing years, you must include the cent in years for “one hundred”; you can’t leave it off like you can in English (saying “nineteen forty-five”, for example, for 1945).
Dix-neuf cents quarante-cinq (Literally: “nineteen hundreds forty-five”)
Talking about Time
|en avance||early (literally “in advance”)|
|à l’heure||on time|
Grammatical Structure of Time
Reporting the time always begins with il est, never c’est or any other subject-verb setup, before saying the time. French uses demi, which means “half”; instead of saying “two-thirty”, the phrase is literally “two hours and half”.
Il est quatre heures et demi. (“It is four-thirty.”)
Similarly, quart is used for quarter.
Il est deux heures et quart. (“It is two hours and a quarter”; it is 2:15.)
When you want to say a certain time until an hour, such as fifteen minutes until seven, you say moins before the number of minutes.
Il est sept heures moins le quart (“It is a quarter until seven.”)
Il est dix heures moins vingt (“It is twenty minutes until ten.”)
The French often use “military time” (24 hour time), especially in cases like train schedules, where it’s important to be precise.
Il est seize heures moins vingt. (Literally: “It is sixteen hours minus twenty”; It is 15:40, or 3:40pm)
Il est vingt heures et demi. (“It is 20:30”, or 8:30pm)
There are a couple of distinct ways to express the length of time something will take.
Dans une heure means that starting in an hour something will happen.
En une heure means something will happen within an hour, or it will take an hour to do something.
Discussing Time with Verbs
French has a specific future tense (the equivalent of saying someone “will” do something in the future has a distinct tense in French). You can also say you are “going” to do something, just like you can in English, with aller.
Il achètera un stylo. (“He will buy a pen.”)
Il va acheter un stylo. (“He is going to buy a pen.”)
Passé composé (read the linked posts for each tense for much more detail) generally applies to specific past events that are now over. Imparfait represents ongoing or habitual tasks in the past, and plus-que parfait represents events that took place even further in the past (before the passé composé and/or imparfait actions).
There are also a couple present tense expressions that apply to the future or past. Venir de + [infinitive] is used to express something that “just” happened.
Je viens de partir quand il m’a trouvé. (“I had just left when he found me”)
En train de + [infinitive] means that an action is “in the middle” of happening.
J’étais en train de faire mes devoirs quand ma sœur a commencé à chanter. (“I was in the middle of doing my homework when my sister began to sing.”)
Talking about time and dates in French is not necessarily intuitive, there are frequently idiomatic and fixed expressions, and the different verb tenses can trip non-native speakers up. However, it will be necessary as you become a more advanced speaker to learn these structures so that you can at least recognize them when you hear or see them. These concepts can definitely be learned, it just may take some time and practice.