Who Moved Midnight?

Nobody moved midnight, really. It’s still where it’s always been, right there in the dark between 11:59 p.m. and 12:01 a.m. Just as noon is where it’s always been, right there in the middle of the day at lunchtime. (Or right after lunchtime, for those of us who wake up ready for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. and are consequently ready for lunch by 11:15. We’re the same people who have to take midnight on faith, because we haven’t seen it in person since New Year’s Eve at the beginning of the current millennium.)

But in recent years, somebody has been messing with 12:00 o’clock. Instead of the clear and simple designations of noon and midnight, I’m noticing more and more references to 12:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m.

This usage is confusing. Does 12:00 a.m. mean noon and 12:00 p.m. mean midnight? Or is 12:00 a.m. midnight while 12:00 p.m. is noon? Depending on what you see as the starting point for the 12-hour clock, you could make a case for either one.

And in either case, you would be illogical and incorrect. For the same reason the weather app on my phone was illogical and incorrect the other morning when it informed me that the outside temperature was “minus zero” degrees.

No, it wasn’t. Zero is neither plus nor minus. It is the dividing line between plus and minus. Like an impartial referee, it doesn’t get to take sides.

When it comes to clocks, 12:00 is equivalent to zero. Noon and midnight cannot be a.m. or p.m.; they are the dividing lines between a.m. and p.m. The terms are abbreviations for ante meridiem, (before midday) and post meridiem (after midday). Midday—aka noon—cannot be before or after itself.

Who can we blame this misusage on? Computers, of course. Because digital devices, bless their little one-or-zero hearts, get confused by things that are neither one nor the other. They don’t want to have to deal with the neutral second in between a.m. and p.m. or the neutral zero in between minus and plus.

My phone and my computer claim that noon is 12:00 p.m. and midnight is 12:00 a.m. (So, by the way, does the style guide for the United States Printing Office.) My relatively ancient clock radio also believes midnight is 12:00 a.m., a fact of which I was unpleasantly reminded last night when the alarm that I believed I had set for 5:00 a.m. shrilled at midnight.

Both my microwave and my stove avoid the issue altogether. Possibly they assume users will be able to tell the difference between a.m. or p.m. based on whether they’re scrambling eggs, steaming broccoli, or making popcorn.

I don’t know what the clock in my new car thinks. According to the manual, I can set the clock to either a 12-hour or a 24-hour format and also set it to remind me of birthdays and anniversaries. As if I’m going to attempt that; I just barely know which of the numbers on the intimidating dashboard display is the time. Learning how to set the clock can wait until after I’ve managed to figure out how to adjust the heat, defrost the windshield, and unlock the passenger doors.  

Are noon and midnight lost to us forever? Are they, like sundials and clocks with hands and faces, to be inevitably ground to extinction by the relentless jaws of technology? Not necessarily. That same technology, at this point, is probably sophisticated enough to easily be programmed to show 12:00 as midnight and noon rather than a.m. and p.m. Or we could sidestep the whole issue by switching to the much more logical 24-hour clock. (Not a likely solution any time soon, given our country’s persistent resistance to the metric system used by much of the rest of the world.)

For now, we’re stuck between the midnight/noon logic of human beings and the a.m./p.m. logic of computers. When dealing with digital devices, it’s a good idea to mind their p’s and a’s and figure out which applies to the middle of the day and which to the middle of the night. When dealing with human beings, it’s an even better idea—no matter what your digital devices say—to be clear about whether you mean noon or midnight.

If, for example, you schedule a top-secret assignation in an unfrequented corner of the park for 12:00 p.m., you’d better specify that you mean noon, not midnight. Otherwise your clandestine compatriot could be left in the dark for hours, standing behind a tree clutching a fading pink carnation and a copy of War and Peace, waiting in vain for the secret code.

P.S. Remember to “fall back” this weekend, since Daylight Saving Time ends November 1. At 2:00 a.m., to be precise. (Years ago, my father joked to a group of friends that the thing he hated about DST was staying up till 2:00 a.m. to change the clocks. A woman apparently lacking a sense of humor assured him solemnly that it was perfectly okay to just change the clocks before he went to bed.) But whether you adjust your clocks on October 31 at bedtime or on November 1 either  at 2:00 a.m. or after you’ve realized why you’re at church an hour early, don’t worry too much about your digital devices. They can reset themselves.  

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