At the crack of dawn: Idioms used for speaking about time

Tim Robberts/Stone/Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

During the course of a day, we make repeated references to time, whether we’re worrying about being late for an appointment or expressing surprise at how quickly something has happened. Any concept that we frequently convey is likely to have idioms associated with it. This post looks at those idioms, as always, focusing on phrases that are frequent and current.

Let’s start with the nice, short phrase time flies, used for saying how quickly time seems to have passed: Wow, Otis was a little boy the last time I saw him! Time flies.

When something happens later than you were hoping, you might say better late than never, meaning that you are happy about it, even though it should have happened earlier: Eventually, he wrote and apologized. Better late than never, I guess.

Conversely, something that happens on the dot happens exactly at the expected time: They arrived at nine o’clock, on the dot.

If you do something at the last possible moment, (almost too late) you might say informally that you do it (just) in the nick of time: We got to the station just in the nick of time – as we stepped on the train, the doors were closing. A more formal phrase with a similar meaning is at the eleventh hour, (usually said of something important or official): Thankfully, at the eleventh hour, we received the signatures.

Something that happens in the blink of an eye, happens extremely quickly: I don’t recall many details of the crash – it all happened in the blink of an eye.

If you do something enjoyable a lot because you haven’t had the opportunity to do it before, you might say you are making up for lost time: He didn’t get the chance to travel much when he was younger but he’s certainly making up for lost time now!

When you do something extremely early in the morning, you can say you do it at the crack of dawn: She’s up at the crack of dawn, feeding the chickens.

If something is done around / round the clock, it is done all day and all night, without stopping: Emergency services worked around the clock to rescue stranded residents. This phrase is also used adjectivally: He’s very sick and needs round-the-clock care.

I’d like to end this post with a vivid idiom that I’m sure has an equivalent in many languages. If something is done too late to prevent a problem, we sometimes say that someone has shut / closed the stable door after the horse has gone / bolted: They’re going to stop building houses on the floodplain. Talk about shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted!

25 thoughts on “At the crack of dawn: Idioms used for speaking about time

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you.Kate! Your posts are always very informative. It’s utterly interesting to compare two absolutely different languges – English and Russian. I always find Rassian equivalents for the English idioms, the meaning may be slightly different but in general it’s the same..

      1. Kate Woodford

        That’s a very nice – and very apt idiom, thank you! I didn’t include it because it’s slightly literary and not terribly common but on reflection, I think I probably should have! Best wishes from Cambridge.

      1. Hesham Mohammed Abu Mostafa

        I really appreciate your laudable efforts in clarifying the meanings of common idioms and how they are used in different situations.
        I’d be grateful if you could clarify whether the expressions are restricted to British English or commonly used in American English as well.
        Best Regards

  2. Denys Senin

    Tatiana, let`s give some Russians idiom for instance. Equivalents of last idiom (shut / closed the stable door after the horse has gone / bolted) in Russian are: Blowing on water after scalded with milk or Do not wave fists after the fight.

    And one more question to Kate: what about word “sharp” (or “sharply”) when you promise to be at the time in the certain place? It was in one of series of “A.L.F.”, when Lynn promises her father not to be late at home.

    1. Denis

      Howdy Denys,

      The adverb ‘sharp’ (not ‘sharply’) means ‘exactly at the stated time’: The performance will start at 7.30 sharp.

      Best wishes

  3. Muhabbat

    Oh, Kate! Thank you very much. It’s the first time I have seen your information, but I already love.Because those idioms are very similar to Uzbek Idioms. For example: in the blink of an eye – ko’z ochib yumguncha. I hope I will learn in English fastly with your idioms))

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Muhabbat! I’m really glad you raised that. I often encourage learners to spend a bit of time with English idioms because it’s surprising how many have direct equivalents in other languages and, as you say, it makes learning them much easier. Do check in with us regularly as we often publish posts on idioms. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  4. Denis

    A compulsive read! 🙂
    Suppose you post the second part of this riveting piece incorporating such colourful idioms as ’till/until the cows come home’, ‘when hell freezes over’, ‘jump the gun’, ‘be up with the lark’, ‘the early bird catches the worm’, ‘on the spur of the moment’, ‘down to the wire’, & ‘turn into a pumpkin’? I reckon these would be a great addition. Furthermore, you could also shed light on the difference between ‘in time’ and ‘on time’, which quite frequently bemuses English learners.

    Kind regards

  5. Svetlana

    If my memory serves me, it means точно. It was in The Devil Wears Prada.
    “I want the driver drop me off at 9:30 and pick me up at 9:45 sharp”

  6. Carol Li

    Hey Kate Woodford, thank your for sharing a new post again, your posts are always very informative, I really like it, may I ask if I can forward your posts to wechat? And I also want to do some tranlastion before public it, then people who wants to learn english can understand the meaning of the sentences. Let me know if you appprove it.

    Thank you very much!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Carol! Thanks for your kind words. I’m really happy you find my posts useful. I gather from my colleagues that you are free to share the post, though not change it in any way. I hope that helps. Best wishes from Cambridge.

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