Walking home last night, Laura and I passed a fellow on the street, who asked if we knew the time. My watch read “9:57,” but I struggled with how to convey this. First, I rejected simply saying “nine fifty-seven.” That seemed too precise, too geeky. Besides, it might not have been accurate, as my watch could be off by a minute or two. I considered “ten o’clock,” but to me, that implied that it actually was ten o’clock. If the man had reason to need to know if the hour had passed, I didn’t want to lead him to believe that it had, when I knew it probably hadn’t. I rejected “nine fifty-five” for similar reasons; that seemed like I would be implying that it actually was 9:55, which I knew to be inaccurate.
Finally, I settled on “five to ten.” It required more thought on my part, and probably more thought on his, but it felt right. To me, phrases like “to”, “of”, “past” and “’till” imply some imprecision in a way that reading off digits does not, perhaps because they predate the use of digital clocks.
Am I nuts?