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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Criminal Sentence 211: A Couple Minutes to Think about Apostrophes

From a book I just read about hostages in Colombia:

"If a rescue attempt came, we’d have a couple minutes head start."

An apostrophe is missing after the word "minutes." This is a tricky use of apostrophes, but if you imagine the sentence says "a minute," wouldn't you automatically say "a minute's head start"? Yes, so in the plural it should be minutes'.

Sometimes you can avoid an apostrophe by using "of" instead, but it doesn't work here.You would have to reword:

"a two-minute head start"

It does work here:

I have ten years' experience.
I have ten years of experience.

5 comments:

Vireya said...

Is there really no "of" between couple and minutes in American English? When I've read blog posts and emails missing that "of", I've assumed the writers either mistyped or were uneducated. I put it in the same category as using the incorrect version of your/you're or there/their/they're. But now, in a couple of sentences, you are causing me to re-evaluate my prejudices.

Martinus said...

Certainly "a couple of minutes" is what I'd expect in British English.

tfneva said...

Just as you would expect "a few of minutes" or "a several of minutes?"

The Sentence Sleuth said...

You can put an "of": "a couple of minutes." Or you can leave "of" out: "a couple minutes." That was not the issue, though. The issue was needing an apostrophe. Think about it in the singular. "I have a minute's headstart." There you need an apostrophe. It's less obvious when you use plural: "a couple minutes' headstart."

PFSchaffner said...

A couple of points (so to speak): (1) some still regard the indefinite use of 'a couple' to mean 'a few' as dodgy; most would avoid it in formal writing. (2) The omission of 'of' is definitely an Americanism; is undoubtedly phonetic in origin, as unstressed 'of' dwindled to '-uh-' and then faded away; and is still largely confined to speech (where it is hard to distinguish from 'coupla,' the reduced form of 'couple of') and informal writing that mimics speech: I would be dismayed to find it in formal or academic prose, especially any prose that hopes to find an international (Anglo-American) audience. And (3) the inclusion or omission of 'of' makes some difference to the point of the original post, since 'a couple of minutes' is a noun phrase with a singular noun 'couple' at its head, whereas 'a couple minutes' (with 'couple' following the analogical lead of 'dozen' and 'few') is a noun phrase with a plural noun 'minutes' at its head, modified by a quasi-adjectival 'couple': 'a couple of minutes' is no more or less plural than 'a pair of ducks.' I think one nevertheless uses the plural apostrophe (s') in the former case, but it is still a little more problematic than a simple pairing of singular ("a minute's delay") and plural ("six minutes' delay"), as is often the case with this whole class of numeric modifiers and quasi-collectives.