Friday, 15 May 2009

On 'quarter of'

A correspondent writes to ask if the US English time expression quarter of, as in quarter of four, is an ellipsis of something like 'It lacks/wants a quarter of four'.

I don't think it's necessary to suggest an implied verb. The preposition of has several locative uses, and it's a natural semantic extension to move from space to time. The original meaning of the preposition was 'away from' (a sense today now usually found with off), as seen in such obsolete usages as not far of the town and still found in relation to compass points (eg north of London) and specified distances (eg within a mile of).

In fact the OED (see of 4c) locates the clock sense along with other senses 'expressing position which is (or is treated as) the result of departure, and is defined with reference to the starting point', The time quarter of four, from this perspective, means 'a quarter away from four'.

The British use is quarter to, and is quite old. The OED (see to, 6b) has citations from around 1000 illustrating a wide range of usage, such as half hour to five and two hours to day (i.e. 'until daybreak'). The usage with of is less easy to track, because it has also had a dialect use in Scotland and Northern Ireland which probably antedates the US use, though citations are lacking. The earliest OED citation for the American use is 1817.

21 comments:

dayna said...

I have lived in the Midwest US all my life and had never heard "quarter of" until a trip to Boston, Mass. I had no idea if the speaker meant a "quarter to" or a "quarter after."

I occasionally hear the phrase from older folks but still have to stop and think for a second about which meaning is intended.

Nigel Greenwood said...

It may be of some interest to contrast the US usage with the standard Russian usage, in which четверть четвертого (chetvert' chetvyortovo, "a quarter of the fourth") means "a quarter past three". This is perfectly logical once you interpret it as meaning "a quarter of the way through the fourth hour".

David Crosbie said...

There is an old joke among Russian teachers of English. Two strangers in New York begin speaking in English:

A: Which watch?

B: Quarter of fourth.

A: Such much?

They then embrace each other exclaiming (in Russian).

A & B: Good heavens! You went to the same Institute of Languages!

[Russian час chas means 'hour', but also 'clock' and 'watch'.]

In Scotland, time-telling of combines with back in an unexpected way:

The back of nine is just after nine o'clock.

Wordslinger said...

When I studied in Jena, Germany, I was told that the regional convention was to elide "to" and "past". The locals would say viertel elf for quarter past ten (literally, a quarter of eleven) and, rather strangely, dreiviertel(three quarters) elf for quarter to eleven. It was obviously a localised tradition as people from less than an hour's drive away would stare at me in utter bewilderment whenever I came out with three quarters of the hour. It also explains why they never arrived for meetings on time.

Alan Gunn said...

In 1962 I moved from upstate NY to Texas, where people told me they'd never heard people say "quarter of" until they'd met me. They weren't in doubt about what I meant, though.

DC said...

Very interesting how much variation there seems to be in the US. It isn't acknowledged in the dictionaries.

Phil Hall said...

Some prepositions creep in like Lantana don't they; like the preposition "on" for example.

Perhaps the use of "of" is a similar, a kind of simplification of the language.

Or perhaps it's a vestigal dialectal for from the time of the colony.

~Stella said...

My experience is exactly the same as Dayna. I was raised in Minnesota, USA. I now live on the east coast of the US. Every time a person asks me to meet them at "a quarter of," I need to have this phrase re-defined for me. I can't seem to remember what it means from use to use because I was raised on "a quarter to" and "a quarter after."

maggie_wc said...

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DC said...

Well, thanks for that! A complete booklist is on my website, www.davidcrystal.com.

Andy H said...

David Crosbie's joke features most prominently in Casablanca of course

Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen - sweetnessheart, what watch?
Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch.
Mr. Leuchtag: Such much?
Carl: Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.

mijdge said...

I've never heard a 'quarter of' be used in a person's everyday speech. I use 'quarter past' and 'quarter to,' but it seems like a logical usage, as does 'back of' in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

"Quarter to" and "quarter past/after" are so logical and easy to understand. Why do people have to use strange phrases like "quarter of" that get everyone confused, including those who grew up in the US? The confusion is compounded for people who were raised in other countries, which have their own unique meanings for "quarter of." I grew up in Russia, and every time someone says "quarter of four" I interpret it as 3:15, as one of the commenters above said. Then I have to slap myself on the head after remembering that it is actually 4:15.

DC said...

Or even 3.45...

Anonymous said...

The reason we (I'm from NH, USA, with a very modest NH accent) say "quarter of", is that everyone from around here understands it means 45 past-the-hour. A co-worker from GA teases us about it regularly, however, and I agree with him that it is ambiguous. If you're not brought up hearing and saying it, it could easily mean 15 past-the-hour.

That being said, if someone you talk to answers both "quarter past" and "quarter of" to the question of what time is it, the ambiguity starts to fade away. Bottom line. when asking a stranger what time it is, saying something like "Nine forty-five" is easier for everyone.

Anonymous said...

didn't bill brysons book, Made in America, explain something about 'of' used to have the same meaning as 'to' in old english? I.e saying "it's quarter of 10" is just an old english way or saying "it's quarter to 10"

Mrs. Doring =) said...

I'm from the Northwest where this is not a common phrase. Looking at it from a mathematic point of view, I interpreted 'a quarter of ten' to mean 10:15, since you have ten and a quarter. The Russian interpretation also makes sense to me, mathematically. I suppose when such phrases are not in the local vernacular they can be ambiguous. Around here we usually just say the numbers!

Dodger said...

A quarter of ten is, mathematically, 2:30, actually. Every time my GF uses this phrase I have to ask her what it means. It never sticks.

Steve Economy said...

My girlfriend and I debate this on occasion. She is from upstate NY and I'm from the Michigan so you can guess which side I'm on. We've been together a while and I still, to this day, have to qualify what the actual time is when she phrases it like this - "so, it's a quarter 'til?"

Grant Trolly said...

Soon it will be completely irrelevant. I know young people who can't tell the time when looking at an analogue clock. These days the children learn about time using digital clocks. They almost invariably say "9:45" or "9:15".

My own son looked at me in stunned silence one day when I told him it was "twenty to". He then explained that he could understand my saying "twenty to" had I been looking at a clock dial, because it is a 'verbal description' of what I see. But for me to see 3:40 on a digital clock face, then to remap this in my own mind to the clock dial's visual representation of time, was (to him) entirely absurd.

I suppose he's right.

Another reason young people don't understand the old round clock is the fact that the third hand is actually called the "second hand".

Anonymous said...

@wordslinger: The usage of "viertel" and "dreiviertel" is not a "regional convention" but common throughout the states east of river Elbe. Funny enough, East Germans do not have any problems with either "viertel vor" or "dreiviertel" whilst most West Germans simply don't get it tight and stubbornly stick to their way of expressing time. Speak about flexibility... Same applies to "Samstag" vs "Sonnabend", btw.