Noon or Midnight: Reducing Confusion in Time References

Sometimes, the time an event occurs is critical to the story, and choosing a clock time for noon or midnight can cause confusion.

How do you spell out time on your site? And how do you handle the two 12 o’clock periods known as noon or midnight?

If you use a style guide on your site, that may dictate how you answer those questions.

A while back, I wrote about two popular options: The Associated Press Style Guide and the MLA Style Manual published by the Modern Language Association of America.

This blog tends to follow AP Style more than anything else, although I tend to depart from AP in certain situations when I think my way might be easier.

Back in 2014, I pointed out that when you were dealing with time references in the two styles, there were these guidelines:

[For AP Style], those three hours past midnight would be written as 3 a.m. Twenty-five minutes later, it would be 3:25 a.m. AP does not use :00 for tops of the hour.

MLA style, which is used in formal papers and high schools and colleges, does not omit that :00 from on-the-hour time references. For MLA, it’d be either 3:00 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.

When I’m writing for the real job, I follow AP guidelines, so the 11th hour of the morning is written as 11 a.m. and 30 minutes past that is written as 11:30 a.m.

But when I’m writing for this blog, my personal style takes over. At this site, you’d see those same time references written out as 11:00am and 11:30am.

No spaces, no periods, and double zeroes where necessary. I feel it’s easier on the eye that way.

What I didn’t discuss back then is the potential confusion over noon or midnight.

Both noon and midnight serve as the boundaries between what is considered the morning and evening halves of the day.

When it’s 11:45am, it’s still considered the “morning.” When it’s 12:15pm, it’s then considered the “afternoon.” Generally, 6:00pm is the time that’s accepted as “evening” or “night,” although there’s some argument about whether the 5:00pm hour should be referred to as happening “today” or “tonight” when Daylight Saving Time changes what time it’s dark. 

Most people who see 12:30pm or 12:30am can generally figure out that the former is the afternoon and the latter is in the overnight hours. For some reason, the brain can process those times easier.

But what about 12:00am or 12:00pm? For some people, I’ve learned there’s a disconnect there. The confusion I’ve heard seems specifically focused on the pm version. 

Is 12:00pm noon or midnight? Most of us would immediately say it’s noon. (It is.) But some see that little pm and think it must mean “night,” so it must be midnight.

That little pm, it’s worth noting, stands for post meridiem, which literally means “after noon.” AM stands for ante-meridiem, or “before noon.”

But noon is 12:00pm, or “12 after noon” while midnight is 12:00am, or “12 before noon.”

Trying to rationalize it that way might just be even more confusing.

The solution is much more simple.

Honestly, I don’t know that this is a huge problem for readers. I think most have just learned to figure out what 12:00pm and 12:00am means without a lot of thought.

But I think we as writers can still make what we’re talking about more clear by actually using the words noon and midnight instead of the numerals for either 12 o’clock.

The eye encounters either word and there’s no mental math to be done. It’s immediately clear.

Clarity ought to be one of the main goals, right?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.