We often need to know when something will happen or when it happened. In those scenarios, it’s helpful to know if we should use “at what time” to phrase our question or if there are better alternatives.
It is correct to use the prepositional phrase “at what time” to ask about the timing of an event. It’s a fairly formal construction that could be substituted with “what time” or “when” in more casual exchanges. It almost always comes at the beginning of a question like this: “At what time does the concert begin?”
This article will explore the prepositional phrase “at what time” to understand its meaning and how we use it. We’ll also consider alternatives and other common prepositional phrases we employ in everyday English.
What Does “At What Time” Mean?
We define “at what time” simply as “when.” It uses the preposition “at,” the adjective “what,” and the noun “time” to create a phrase asking about something’s timing. However, it cannot stand alone and needs other words in the sentence to complete the question.
“At” is a preposition we use to show a particular point at which something occurs, while “what” asks for information about the noun “time.” Let’s consider a sentence that illustrates this:
- At what time will you be ready to welcome the guests?
The question we’re asking is, put more simply, “When will you be ready to welcome the guests?” but we are being more formal and specific by asking what time that will occur.
How Do You Use “At What Time”?
We use “at what time” to pose a question about what time a specific event will occur. Because “what” is a questioning word, it will always be part of a question followed by a question mark. Most often, “at what time” comes at the beginning of a sentence, before the information specifying the event we are asking about.
We need more information for “At what time” to make sense. For example, you could ask, “At what time will this presentation end?” or something similar. On its own, the phrase doesn’t make sense unless it is in conversation and directly preceded by the necessary information, such as in the exchange below.
- Speaker 1: Could you please fetch Sarah from the dance tonight?
- Speaker 2: At what time?
- Speaker 1: At 8 PM.
When used in a conversational exchange like this, it’s very clear that Speaker 2 is asking what time he or she must fetch Sarah from the dance. At all other times, information about the event in question will follow the phrase “at what time.”
We can use “at what time” in any tense because the following words will determine whether the event is in the past, present, or future tense, as shown below.
- Present: At what time does the building close?
- Future: At what time will the building close?
- Past: At what time did the building close?
When Can You Use “At What Time”?
We use “at what time” when we are questioning someone about the timing of an event. We primarily use it in formal environments unless we use it by itself to ask for clarity as part of a spoken exchange. We use it when we want to know a specific time for something rather than just broad timing.
The construction is relatively formal, with the preposition placed first, so we mostly use it when we want to be correct. You can often replace it with the less formal “What time?” and the meaning would be unchanged.
- At what time is the fair open this Wednesday?
- What time is the fair open this Wednesday?
While “at what time” is more formal, both phrases are correct, and you’ll hear people asking “What time” more often than “At what time.”
When Not to Use “At What Time”
We shouldn’t use “at what time” if we don’t need to know a specific time for something. We are also unlikely to use it in casual conversation because it sounds stiff and formal.
If we just want to know broadly when something will occur or has occurred, then it’s easier to use “when.” The responder then doesn’t need to give a specific time, as shown in the exchange below.
- Speaker 1: When will you finish your meeting?
- Speaker 2: Late this evening.
If we wanted a more specific answer, we’d be better off asking, “At what time will you finish your meeting?” or, more casually, “What time will you finish your meeting?” because that way, the answer will be more precise.
Although we can always substitute “what time” for “at what time,” it doesn’t always work the other way around. For instance, if you asked, “What time is it?” you couldn’t rewrite that as “At what time is it?”
Using “At What Time” in a Full Sentence
As shown, “at what time” is not a full sentence but a prepositional phrase. It can stand alone in the context of a conversation, but in written English, it needs a subject to make it a full sentence.
Consider the examples below that show “at what time” in full sentences. It’s usually at the start of a sentence unless preceded by a phrase that introduces it.
- At what time should we be ready to depart?
- At what time did the accused enter the building?
- At what time will you need a taxi to be outside?
- At what time is the meeting scheduled?
- As I still have work to complete, at what time do I need to lock up the office?
- Following on from the previous point, at what time did this happen?”
Occasionally, we may use “at what time” mid-sentence to describe the timing of an event, as shown below.
- She asked at what time she needed to be ready to depart.
- The lawyer specified at what time the accused had entered the building.
- Tom will inquire at what time the meeting took place.
- Jack asked at what time the taxi should be outside.
- As I still have work to complete, I need to know at what time to lock up the office.
- In connection with the previous point, she asked at what time this occurred.
What Can You Use Instead of “At What Time”?
As already mentioned, it’s almost always possible to substitute “at what time” for the more casual “what time.” In most instances, we can also replace it with “when,” but we may not get a specific enough answer to that. Therefore, we have outlined some other alternatives below.
Let’s use the sentence “At what time does the meeting start?” and see how we could say it differently.
- What time does the meeting start?
- When does the meeting start?
- At what hour does the meeting start?
- Does the meeting start at a particular time?
Let’s use the sentence “She asked at what time the murder took place” and see how we could say that differently.
- She asked when the murder took place.
- She asked what time the murder took place.
- She asked at what hour the murder took place.
- She asked if the murder happened at a particular time.
- She asked at what instant the murder took place.
Typically, prepositional phrases consist of a preposition followed by a noun or noun phrase (source). They usually modify either a verb or a noun. For example, in the case of “at what time,” it modifies the verb, asking when something occurred.
Prepositions can indicate time, location, direction, relationships in space, or other abstract relationships. They include words like “at,” “to,” “under,” and “of.” A prepositional phrase will always contain a preposition.
As shown below, when a prepositional phrase modifies a verb, it’s called an adverbial prepositional phrase.
- He jumped off the couch in great alarm.
- She ran with a sense of freedom.
In sentence one, “in great alarm” modifies the verb “jumped,” showing how he jumped off the couch. In sentence two, “with a sense of freedom” modifies the verb “ran,” showing how she ran.
As shown below, when a prepositional phrase modifies a noun, it’s called an adjectival prepositional phrase.
- I like the painting on the right.
- My house is behind the bakery.
In sentence one, “on the right” modifies the noun “painting,” showing which painting you like. In sentence two, “behind the bakery” modifies the noun “house,” showing where your house is.
This article was written by strategiesforparents.com.
To find out more about prepositional phrases, visit our articles Is It Correct to Say “At Your Earliest Convenience”? and What Does “By Tomorrow” Mean?
We use “at what time” when we want a precise answer about what time something happened, is happening, or will happen. It’s a formal construction that’s suitable to use in polite environments. Because it’s so specific, it should receive a particular answer.
It’s also interesting to know what prepositional phrases are and how to use them in English. It’s helpful to understand what phrases to use in polite environments. For example, we often hear people asking “at what time” something will happen or has happened. Now we know when to use it and when to choose a casual alternative.