Monday, January 27, 2014

A ten-minute walk, ten minutes' walk - expressions with two nouns

Expressions with two nouns to talk about time, distance and other forms of measurement

Two basic patterns

In this post we take a look at using expressions of time, distance, money etc when we use a number with a noun, before another noun, for example:
ten + minute + walk
There are two basic patterns we can use:

Pattern 1 - used adjectivally

We often use a number and a noun combination after a determiner such as an article, this, my etc, and functioning as an adjective before a noun and modifying that noun. In this case, the noun signifying a measure of time, distance, amount, weight etc, is used in the singular:
  • It takes ten minutes to walk there
    It's a ten-minute walk.
  • The holiday is for two weeks
    We're going for a two-week holiday
  • Your hike was fifty miles
    This fifty-mile hiking trip you went on, what was it like?
  • It was five metres to the ground
    It was a five-metre drop to the ground.
  • I've lost five pounds
    Have you seen my five-pound note?
  • He tried to bribe me with a hunded dollars
    He offered me a hundred-dollar bribe
  • The lorry weighs ten tonnes
    It's a ten-tonnne lorry
  • The bottle holds two litres
    It's a two-litre bottle
  • The essay has ten pages
    It's a ten-page essay
Note: the use of hyphens - when used adjectivally like this before another noun, we usually put a hyphen between the number and the first noun, the one indicating the unit of measure. But not all authorities consider this necessary.

Pattern 2 - used as a possessive compound noun

When talking about time or distance, we can also use the number + noun expression as part of a compound noun, in which case they are used in the possessive form with an apostrophe:

When there's only one, or the expression ends in a fraction

If the number is one or less, or ends in a fraction (a half, a quarter) etc, the unit of measure is in the singular and is followed by 's.
  • It's only half-an-hour's drive.
  • He was given a week's wages (one week's wages).
  • She's taken a week-and-a-half's break off work
  • It's a mile's walk (one mile's walk) from here.
  • There's half-a-metre's width between the two walls.
  • It was a kilometre-and-a-half's walk to the nearest bus stop.
This construction is also used in some idiomatic expressions:
  • They live very nearby
    They only live a stone's throw away
  • We only just missed it
    We missed by a hair's breadth

Why do we use the possessive form?

This is really just another (and more natural) way of saying of.
  • a week's break = a break of a week
  • a mile's walk = a walk of a mile
  • a stone's throw = the throw of a stone

When there's more than one

If the number is greater than one, the unit of measure is in the plural and is followed by an apostrophe.

Fishing, edited by Horace G Hutchinson, from the "Country Life" Library of Sport. 1904,

  • It's five hours' drive from here.
    (a drive of five hours)
  • We'll be back in two weeks' time.
    (a time of two weeks)
  • It's five miles' walk from here.
    (a walk of five miles)
  • It's ten metres' drop to the ground.
    (a drop of ten metres)
Notice these expressions with a couple, a few etc
  • It's a couple of minutes' walk from the station.
  • There'll probably be a few minutes' wait before he can see us.
Note 1: trip, journey etc - When talking about distance, we only use this construction with words that can mean general distance, such as drive, walk or swim, usually related to verbs. So you can say a place is ten hours' drive from here, but not that it is ten hours' trip from here. With words like trip and journey we'd use the first pattern - we're going on a ten-day trip, it's a four-hour journey, etc.
Note 2: the use of apostrophes - A lot of people don't use apostrophes in these expressions. For example, when I googled "and a half week's work", Google asked me 'did you mean "and a half weeks work" '.
The apostrophe is stipulated, however, in the style guides of both The Guardian and The Economist newspapers, and is shown in EFL grammar books such as Raymond Murphy's English Grammar in Use Intermediate (Unit 80 - ten minutes' walk) and Michael Swan's Practical English Usage (p 466 - three miles' walk) as well as many online grammar and writing guides.
Which is quite logical if you think about it. The phrase one weeks holiday without an apostrophe doesn't make grammatical sense - it looks as though we have one and the plural weeks. So we really need that apostrophe in this instance - one week's holiday, and it is then only logical to extend it to the plural version as well - three weeks' holiday.

Expressions with money

We really only use money expressions like this with the noun worth (see next section):
  • Can you give me a pound's worth (one pound's worth), please.
  • I bought five pounds' worth of goods.
  • It was a good ten dollars' worth.

A quick note on the noun worth

As a noun, worth is used with expressions of time and money. It's also used in expressions like 'get your money's worth'. To judge by Google Search, it is often used without an apostrophe, but the dictionaries I've checked (both British and American) all show examples with apostrophes, so when you are writing more formally, what usage books call 'careful writing', you'd do better to include the apostrophe:
  • The winner will receive ten pounds' worth of books.
    (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
  • a week's worth of supplies
    (Oxford Online)
  • They've produced five hours' worth of videos
  • The fire caused thousands of pounds' worth of damage.
  • a month's worth of grocery shopping.
  • She has 15 years' worth of experience in advertising.
    (Merriam-Webster Learner's)
  • ten dollars' worth of natural gas
    (The Free Dictionary)
Note - When the amount of money is expressed as a number, we don't use an apostrophe:
  • a chance to win £2000 worth of computing equipment - NOT £2000's worth

When the expression of time, measurement etc is used before an adjective

In the first of each pair, we use the first pattern, the same as before. But in the second example of each pair, the expression of time, measurement etc is being used adverbially, modifying the adjective, and doesn't take an apostrophe.
  • A ten-week-old baby
    The baby is ten weeks old
  • A two-hundred-kilometre-long river
    The river is two hundred kilometres long
Note: pregnant etc - there are one or two exceptions where we use a plural number in the first pattern:
  • The woman is three months pregnant
    She is a three-months-pregnant woman

Testing for apostrophe use

There are a couple of tests to see whether to use an apostrophe:
1. Try it with of instead:
  • ten minutes' drive
    a drive of ten minutes - that's OK, so we use an apostrophe
  • ten weeks old
    old of ten weeks - that doesn't work, so no apostrophe
2. Try substituting one - if it takes an apostrophe in the singular, it does in the plural too:
  • ten minutes' drive
    one minute's drive - that's OK, so we use an apostrophe in the plural as well
  • ten weeks old
    one week old - no apostrophe in the singular, so no apostrophe in the plural


Exercise 1Complete each sentence with one or two words. Hyphenated words count as one word. Don't use a or an. Use apostrophes and hyphens as indicated in the lesson.
1. If we leave at 8 o'clock and drive to London, we'll arrive there at about 12.
It's about three to London.
Or to put it another way, it's a drive to London.
2. It only takes fifteen minutes by foot.
It's only a walk
In other words, it's only walk.
3. I'm going on holiday for two weeks.
I've got holiday.
I'm going on a holiday.
4. It takes about an hour to walk to the forest.
The forest is about an from here.
5. It takes about an hour and a half to drive there.
It's an drive.
6. The trip round the islands lasted two weeks.
It was a trip.
7. The building is thirty metres high.
It's a building.
8. She wanted sweets worth one pound.
She asked for a of sweets.
9. He had enough food for two weeks.
He had worth of food.
10. The next village is three miles from here.
It's walk from here.
11. It's a sixty-year-old house.
The house is old.
12. It takes five minutes to swim to the island.
It's a swim.
Exercise 2Complete each sentence with one or two words. Hyphenated words count as one word. Don't use a or an. Use apostrophes and hyphens as indicated in the lesson.
1. She bought a bottle containing two litres of Coke.
She bought a bottle of Coke.
2. I'll be back in one hour.
I'll be back in an time.
3. I only slept from 1am to 5am.
I only got sleep.
4. We had five courses for dinner.
It was a dinner.
5. The path across the island is about five miles long.
It's walk across the island.
6. It will only take me two minutes to do.
It will only need a couple work.
7. It's only as far as you can metaphorically throw a stone.
It's only a away.
8. The letter she sent me was five pages long.
She sent me a letter.
9. We had to wait for two hours at the airport
We had a wait at the airport.
10. The train goes in one hour and a half from now.
The train goes in an time.
11. We only narrowly made it through the gap.
We made it through the gap by a .
12. There's only another two kilometres to the go.
Just another walking and we're home and dry.

Grammar trivia 1 - possessive and genitive

In some languages, such as classical Latin and modern Polish, nouns have different endings depending on their functions. These are called cases, and were traditionally given the same names as when describing Latin. So, the subject form was known as Nominative, the direct object form the Accusative, the indirect object form the Dative, and the Possessive form the Genitive.
As English nouns only have two forms, we don't talk about cases much in EFL teaching, simply referring to Possessive as a separate form. But as you know, the Possessive is used to express more than simple possession, for example - Peter's idea, Jenny's cousin, the back of the house, the capital city of Britain, his new hairstyle, her strange way of dressing. For this reason, some linguists prefer to use the term Genitive rather than Possessive, although for reasons we don't need to go in here, they don't necessarily see it as a case.

English has two ways of expressing the genitive

  • -'s - which developed out of the old Anglo-Saxon genitive case ending, for which reason it is sometimes called the Saxon Genitive - this is used mainly, but not exclusively, when talking about people.
  • with the preposition of , which developed from French constructions with de . This is used mainly (but not exclusively) for talking about things, places etc.
When to use one or the other is quite a complicated subject, which I hope to deal with someday. Sometimes it is simply to do with custom: in books for example, 'the ship's captain' is more common than 'the captain of the ship', but 'the captain of the plane' is more common than 'the plane's captain'.

The Double Genitive

Sometimes we use the genitive of construction together with an -'s posessive form (or a possessive pronoun - mine, yours etc). This is known as the Double Genitive. It puzzled some early grammarians, as such a construction is impossible in Latin, but it is perfectly good English:
  • We named the child after a friend of my father's.
  • Do you really believe that story of hers?
  • Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine
    (the title of a story by Ray Bradbury)

Grammar trivia 2 - a little history

The apostrophe is the most recent punctuation mark to have been absorbed into English, and according to linguist David Crystal, writing in The Penguin Dictionary of Language:
... it should be noted that the rules governing the use of the apostrophe are of relatively recent origin, having been largely devised by grammarians and printers only in the mid-19th century.

The eighteenth century

Searching in Google Books suggests that the apostrophe wasn't used much in this type of construction before the nineteenth century. Clicking on the clipping will take you to the book at Google Books. These are fairly typical:

The Annual Register 1780, edited by Edmund Burke

A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 ..., 1796, by Ann Ward Radcliffe

The nineteenth century

Use of the apostrophe in this type of expression became standard during the nineteenth century, as we can see from these clippings taken from the original editions of books published at the dates given:

Charles Dickens - The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby 1839

Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray - The Irish Sketch Book 1842

Charlotte Bronté - Villette, 1858

George Eliot - Adam Bede 1859




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