12-hour clock

Clock system
Midnight (start of day)
12:00 a.m.[lower-alpha 1]
12:01 a.m.00:01
12:59 a.m.00:59
  1:00 a.m.01:00
11:00 a.m.11:00
11:59 a.m.11:59
12 noon
12:00 p.m.[lower-alpha 1]
12:01 p.m.12:01
12:59 p.m.12:59
  1:00 p.m.13:00
11:00 p.m.23:00
11:59 p.m.23:59
Midnight (end of day)
shown as start of next day

The 12-hour clock is a time convention in which the 24 hours of the day are divided into two periods:[1] a.m. (from the Latin, ante meridiem, meaning before midday) and p.m. (post meridiem, meaning after midday).[2] Each period consists of 12 hours numbered: 12 (acting as zero),[3] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. The 24 hour/day cycle starts at 12 midnight (often indicated as 12 a.m.), runs through 12 noon (often indicated as 12 p.m.), and continues to the midnight at the end of the day.

The 12-hour clock was developed over time from the mid-second millennium BC to the 16th century AD.

History and use

Exeter Cathedral Astronomical Clock, showing the double-XII numbering scheme

The natural day/night division of a calendar day forms the fundamental basis as to why each day is split into two cycles. Originally there were two cycles; one cycle which could be tracked by the position of the Sun (day) followed by one cycle which could be tracked by the Moon and stars (night). This would eventually evolve into the two 12-hour periods that started at midnight (a.m.) and noon (p.m.) which are used today. Noon itself is rarely abbreviated today, but if it is, it is denoted M.[1]

The 12-hour clock can be traced back as far as Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.[4] Both an Egyptian sundial for daytime use[5] and an Egyptian water clock for night-time use were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep I.[6] Dating to c. 1500 BC, these clocks divided their respective times of use into 12 hours each.

The Romans also used a 12-hour clock: daylight was divided into 12 equal hours (thus hours having varying length throughout the year) and the night was divided into four watches.

The first mechanical clocks in the 14th century, if they had dials at all, showed all 24 hours, used the 24-hour analog dial, influenced by astronomers' familiarity with the astrolabe and sundial, and their desire to model the Earth's apparent motion around the Sun. In Northern Europe these dials generally used the 12-hour numbering scheme in Roman numerals, but showed both a.m. and p.m. periods in sequence. This is known as the double-XII system, and can be seen on many surviving clock faces, such as those at Wells and Exeter.

Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Italy, numbering was more likely to be based on the 24-hour system (I to XXIV), reflecting the Italian style of counting the hours. The 12-hour clock was used throughout the British empire.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the 12-hour analog dial and time system gradually became established as standard throughout Northern Europe for general public use. The 24-hour analog dial was reserved for more specialized applications, such as astronomical clocks and chronometers.

Most analog clocks and watches today use the 12-hour dial, on which the shorter hour hand rotates once every 12 hours and twice in one day. Some analog clock dials have an inner ring of numbers along with the standard 1-to-12 numbered ring. The number 12 is paired either with a 00 or a 24, while the numbers 1 through 11 are paired with the numbers 13 through 23, respectively. This modification allows the clock to be read also in the 24-hour notation. This kind of 12-hour clock can be found in countries where the 24-hour clock is preferred.

Use by country

In several countries the 12-hour clock is the dominant written and spoken system of time. Other countries use the 12-hour clock mainly in spoken time, while the 24-hour notation is written. In most countries the 12-hour clock is used in speech alongside the 24-hour clock.

The 12-hour clock in speech often uses phrases such as in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and at night. Outside of English-speaking countries, the terms a.m. and p.m. are seldom used and often unknown. In England, the descriptive phrases were universal until relatively recently; e.g., Rider's British Merlin almanac for 1795 (published in London)[7] uses them, and so does a similar almanac for 1773.

A typical digital 12-hour alarm clock indicating p.m. with a dot to the left of the hour

Computer support

In most countries, computers by default show the time in 24-hour notation. Most operating systems, including Microsoft Windows and Unix-like systems such as Linux and macOS, activate the 12-hour notation by default for a limited number of language and region settings.

The behaviour can be changed by the user, for example in Windows 7 "Region and Language" settings. In Windows, AM/PM notations are independent of 12 or 24 hour numbering, allowing the clock to display 16:18:12 PM, for example.[8]


The Latin abbreviations a.m. and p.m. (often written "am" and "pm", "AM" and "PM", or "A.M." and "P.M.") are used in English and Spanish.[9] The equivalents in Greek are π.µ. and µ.µ., respectively, and in Sinhala පෙ.ව. (pe.va.) for පෙරවරු (peravaru, පෙර pera - fore, pre) and ප.ව. (pa.va.) for පස්වරු (pasvaru, පස්සේ passē - after, post). However, noon is rarely abbreviated in any of these languages, noon normally being written in full. In Portuguese, there are two official options and many other used, for example (using 21:45 pm): 21h45 or 21h45min (official ones) or 21:45 or 9:45 p.m.

Most other languages lack formal abbreviations for "before noon" and "after noon", and their users use the 12-hour clock only orally and informally. However, in many languages, such as Russian and Hebrew, informal designations are used, such as "9 in the morning" or "3 in the night".

When abbreviations and phrases are omitted, one may rely on sentence context and societal norms to reduce ambiguity. For example, if one schedules an appointment with a doctor at "9:00", one may mean 9:00 am, but if a social dance is scheduled to begin at "9:00", it may begin at 9:00 p.m.

Related conventions


The terms "a.m." and "p.m." are abbreviations of the Latin ante meridiem (before midday) and post meridiem (after midday). Depending on the style guide referenced, the abbreviations "a.m." and "p.m." are variously written in small capitals ("am" and "pm"), uppercase letters ("AM" and "PM"), or lowercase letters ("am" and "pm").

Some stylebooks suggest the use of a space between the number and the a.m. or p.m. abbreviation. Style guides recommend not using a.m. and p.m. without a time preceding it,[10] although doing so can be advantageous when describing an event that always happens before or after noon.

The hour/minute separator varies between countries: some use a colon, others use a period (full stop).


There are symbols for:

  • "a.m." U+33C2 (HTML ㏂) and
  • "p.m." U+33D8 (HTML ㏘) in Unicode.

They are meant to be used only with Chinese-Japanese-Korean character sets, however, as they take up exactly the same space as one Chinese character.

Informal speech and rounding off

It is common to round a time to the nearest five minutes and express the time as so many minutes past an hour (e.g., 5:05 is "five past five" or "five oh five", formerly written as 5.5 in some publications in the UK[11]) or minutes to an hour (e.g., 5:55 is "five to six"). The period 15 minutes is often expressed as "a quarter" (hence 5:15 is "a quarter past five") and 30 minutes is expressed as "half" (hence 5:30 is "half past five" or merely "half five"). The time 8:45 is spoken as "(a) quarter to (or of, before, or til) nine".[12] Moreover, in situations where the relevant hour is obvious or has been recently mentioned, speakers can state simply "quarter to", "half past", etc., to avoid elaborate sentences in particularly informal conversations. This form is also used in television and radio broadcasts that cover multiple time zones which are at one-hour intervals.

Instead of meaning 5:30, the "half five" expression is sometimes used to mean 4:30, i.e., "half-way to five", especially in the more German-influenced parts of the U.S.A (the Midwest, essentially). The "half-way to five" meaning follows the usage in many Germanic and Slavic languages and in Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian and Indonesian.

Formal speech and times to the minute

Minutes may be expressed as an exact number of minutes past the hour specifying the time of day (e.g., 6:32 p.m. is "six thirty-two"); when expressing the time using the "past (after)" or "to (before)" formula, it is conventional to choose the number of minutes below 30 (e.g., 6.32 pm is conventionally "twenty-eight minutes to seven" rather than "thirty-two minutes past six").

Times of day ending in ":00" minutes (full hours) are often said in English as the numbered hour followed by o'clock (10:00 as ten o'clock, 2:00 as two o'clock). This may be followed by the "a.m." or "p.m." designator, though phrases such as in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, or at night more commonly follow analog-style terms such as o'clock, half past three, and quarter to four. O'clock itself may be omitted, telling a time as four a.m. or four p.m. Minutes ":01" to ":09" are usually pronounced as oh one to oh nine (nought or zero can also be used instead of oh). Minutes ":10" to ":59" are pronounced as their usual number-words. For instance, 6:02 a.m. can be pronounced six oh two a.m.; 6:32 a.m. could be told as six thirty-two a.m.

Confusion at noon and midnight

Time as denoted by various devices or styles
Device or styleMidnight
Start of day
End of day
Written 24-hour time,
including ISO 8601
24-hour digital clocks 00:00 12:00 [lower-alpha 1]
12-hour digital clocks,
with a.m. and p.m.
12:00 a.m. 12:00 p.m. [lower-alpha 1]
Written 12-hour time[lower-alpha 2]
(most common forms)
12:00 a.m.
12 midnight
12:00 p.m.
12 noon
12 midnight
U.S. Government Printing Office[13] 12 a.m.12 p.m.
U.S. Government Printing Office (1953)12:00 a.m.12:00 p.m.
Japanese legal convention[14]0:00 a.m.12:00 a.m.12:00 p.m.
Unusual 12:00 m.[15]
Canadian Press, UK standard, NIST1[lower-alpha 2]MidnightNoonMidnight
NIST2[lower-alpha 2]12:00 midnight12:00 noon12:00 midnight
Associated Press Style[16]12:01 a.m.Noon
U.S. de facto legal12:01 a.m.11:59 p.m.
Encyclopædia Britannica[1]Midnight
December 11–12
December 12–13
  1. 1 2 Digital clocks usually do not reach midnight at the end of the day. Instead they wrap from 11:59 p.m. or 23:59 to midnight at the start of the next day. Likewise the written 12-hour style wraps immediately to the start of the next day.
  2. 1 2 3 These styles are ambiguous with respect to whether midnight is at the start and or end of each day.

It is not always clear what times "12:00 a.m." and "12:00 p.m." denote. From the Latin words meridies (midday), ante (before) and post (after), the term ante meridiem (a.m.) means before midday and post meridiem (p.m.) means after midday. Since strictly speaking "noon" (midday - meridies (m.)) is neither before nor after itself, the terms a.m. and p.m. do not apply.[17] Although "12 m." would be a logically consistent way to indicate noon, this is seldom done (and so risks misunderstanding), and it does not resolve the question of how to indicate midnight.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a usage note on this topic: "By convention, 12 AM denotes midnight and 12 PM denotes noon. Because of the potential for confusion, it is advisable to use 12 noon and 12 midnight."[18]

E. G. Richards in his book Mapping Time provided a diagram in which 12 a.m. means noon and 12 p.m. means midnight.[19]

Many U.S. style guides, and NIST's "Frequently asked questions (FAQ)" web page,[17] recommend that it is clearest if one refers to "noon" or "12:00 noon" and "midnight" or "12:00 midnight" (rather than to "12:00 p.m." and "12:00 a.m."). The NIST website explicitly states that "12 a.m. and 12 p.m. are ambiguous and should not be used."

The Canadian Press Stylebook (11th Edition, 1999, page 288) says, "write noon or midnight, not 12 noon or 12 midnight." Phrases such as "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." are not mentioned at all. Britain's National Physical Laboratory "FAQ-Time" web page[20] states "In cases where the context cannot be relied upon to place a particular event, the pair of days straddling midnight can be quoted"; also "the terms 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. should be avoided."

Likewise, some U.S. style guides recommend either clarifying "midnight" with other context clues, such as specifying the two dates between which it falls, or not referring to midnight at all. For an example of the latter method, "midnight" is replaced with "11:59 p.m." for the end of a day or "12:01 a.m." for the start of a day. That has become common in the United States in legal contracts and for airplane, bus, or train schedules, though some schedules use other conventions. Occasionally, when trains run at regular intervals, the pattern may be broken at midnight by displacing the midnight departure one or more minutes, such as to 23:59 or 00:01.[21]

The 24-hour clock notation avoids these ambiguities by using 00:00 for midnight at the start of the day and 12:00 for noon and 24:00 for midnight at the end of a day.

In Britain, various conventions are employed. For instance, on 17 December 2005 The Sun (London) newspaper's TV magazine used "noon (12.00)" and "midnight (0.00)" in individual listings. Sequential listings started with a.m. or p.m. as appropriate, but these indicators were not used again, although in sub-listings "12midnight" was sometimes employed. On the same date, London's The Daily Telegraph used "12.00noon" and "12.00midnight" in individual listings. In sequential listings the first programme to start after 12.00 was marked "am" or "pm" as appropriate.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 "Time". The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 28. 1986. pp. 660 2a.
    "Time". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. Retrieved 20 November 2013. (subscription required)
    "The use of AM or PM to designate either noon or midnight can cause ambiguity. To designate noon, either the word noon or 1200 or 12 M should be used. To designate midnight without causing ambiguity, the two dates between which it falls should be given unless the 24-hour notation is used. Thus, midnight may be written: May 15–16 or 2400 May 15 or 0000 May 16."
  2. "National Institute of Standards and Technology's Physics Laboratory, Times of Day FAQs". Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  3. Susan Addington (25 August 2016). "Modular Arithmetic". Archived from the original on 4 July 2008. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
  4. The History of Clocks
  5. Berlin instruments of the old Egyptian time of day destination
  6. A Walk through Time - Water Clocks
  7. National Library of Australia catalogue entry for Rider's British merlin: for the year of Our Lord God 1795
  8. Lawrence Abrams (13 December 2012). "How to customize how the time is displayed in Windows". Bleeping Computer. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
  9. Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, HORA (Spanish)
  10. Hacker, Diana, A Writer's Reference, six edition, Bedford, St Martin's, Boston, 2007, section M4-c, p.308.
  11. "TVTimes". 21–27 May 1983. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  12. American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992). s.v. usage note at end of "quarter" entry.
  13. U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual: Chapter 12 - Numerals
  14. http://jjy.nict.go.jp/QandA/FAQ/12am-or-0pm-J.html
  15. Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). University of Chicago Press. 2010. paragraph 9.29. Although noon can be expressed as 12:00 m. (m = meridies), very few use that form.
  16. Ed. Norm Goldstein, The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law: with Internet Guide and Glossary, P.161, 177, Perseus Publishing, 2002, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, LCCN 2002105974, ISBN, 0-7382-0740-3
  17. 1 2 "Times of day, Frequently asked questions (FAQ)". National Institute of Standards and Technology. 18 January 2011. Archived from the original on 2012-05-14. Retrieved 3 May 2012.
  18. AM at the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition (2011)
  19. Richards, E. G., Mapping Time: the Calendar and its History (Oxford University Press, 1999), 289.
  20. National Physical Laboratory, FAQ-Time
  21. Interim train timetables, Abellio Greater Anglia, London, 17 May 2015, pages 7 and 8.

External links

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