Stay on time with the clock, watch the expressions

And now, Words and their stories, from VOA Learn English.

In this program, we explore words and phrases in English. We give you examples and sometimes usage notes.

Today we are talking about expressions related to punctuality. To help us plan our time, we use tools, namely clocks and watches.

If something happens at the exact same time every day, that’s predictable. When an event is very regular, we can say that we could “regulate our watch by it”.

And that’s our first expression: set your watch to something.

You might hear someone use it like this:

Regina leaves her house to go to work every weekday at exactly 7 a.m. – never a minute earlier or later. You can set your watch by it.

In this example, you could say that Regina is a “creature of habit.” This means she sticks to her plan no matter what. And that’s why you can set your watch by it.

This expression can also describe someone who is always on time. They are reliable and punctual – as in this example.

A: John said he’ll be there at 3:00 and it’s 2:45. If he’s late, we’ll miss our train!

B.: Don’t worry. If John said he will be here, then he will be here. He is always on time. You could set your watch by it.

In this photo, astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin sits in the Apollo 11 lunar module. Omega has released a limited-edition Speedmaster watch, to honor the one Aldrin wore on the moon 50 years ago. (File photo)

Now let’s talk about clocks: devices that tell the time.

Some events or activities go smoothly and on time. And some systems work without problems. If everything goes according to plan, we can say that it “works like clockwork”.

Clockwork is a system of wheels and springs inside mechanical clocks. The term means something that is done with care, that works well and on time.

Once I ran a two-week teacher training course. It took a lot of work to organize it and there were “many moving parts” or things that needed to be done. But I’m happy to say that the training went like clockwork!

Here’s another way of saying it: the training went “without a hitch”. Here, “coupling” is a problem.

Running like clockwork means operating with extreme regularity. Some word experts say that the use of clockwork to describe other areas of our lives dates back to at least the late 17th century.

Now listen to this example:

For a large corporate event, we rented a conference room in a large hotel. But we only had room until 3pm and we had a lot of issues to deal with. Fortunately, the event went like clockwork. We did all our work and we still had time to have a little fun!

The phrase “to run like a clock” can also mean to operate, manage, control or direct something in a very fluid way, efficient, reliably. Used this way, a noun or pronoun is used between “running” and “like clockwork”.

Here are some examples:

When the new director took office, he wanted to run office like a clock. So he forced the workers to have lunch at fixed times every day.

When I lived in Seattle, I ran a children’s theater festival like a clock. All performances were on time and everyone had a blast!

Years ago in Washington, DC, I ran a kids’ summer camp like clockwork. All activities were on time and all the kids had a great time.

And that’s all the time we have for Words and their stories. But we’ll be back at the same time next week because this show is running like clockwork. You can set your clock by it!

Until next time… I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


words in this story

habit -not. a habitual way of behaving; something that a person does often on a regular and repeated basis

reliable –adj. being able to be trusted to do or provide what is needed

punctual –adj. do something on time

efficient –adj. able to produce the desired results without wasting materials, time or energy

blast -not. (informal) a good moment


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