January 7th, 2009
Known for 25 years / two years' probation or two years? / one-off vs. one-of
by Barbara Wallraff
Kevin D. Cantley, of Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: “Our office is pretty well split on this. A former co-worker recently renewed her acquaintance with a boyfriend from college -- someone with whom she hadn’t communicated in 23 years. They began e-mailing each other, and to make a long story short, she left work eight months later, married him and moved out of state.
Dear Kevin: If you happened to mention someone I was close to in college, I’d probably exclaim, “I know him!” Then if you asked, “How long have you known him?” I’d probably say something like, “Well, we were friends years ago, but we haven’t stayed in touch.”
Mark Putnam, of Presque Isle, Maine, writes: “Should it be ‘two years’ probation’ or ‘two years probation’? ‘Five years’ experience’ or ‘five years experience’?”
Dear Mark: Those apostrophes may look excessive, but they belong there. The reason it’s hard to tell that they do is that most plurals (for instance, “years”) and their possessive forms (“years’,” with an apostrophe after the “s”) sound exactly the same. So let’s try versions of your phrases in which we can hear a possessive ending if there is one. You’d say “one year’s probation,” not “one year probation,” yes? And “a year’s experience,” not “a year experience.” To make the phrases plural, we need the plural possessive form, with the apostrophe.
Andrew Robb, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “People use the term ‘one-off’ to describe something unique. Should the term not be ‘one-of,’ which is a shortened version of ‘one of a kind’?”
Dear Andrew: Actually, “one-off” seems to have come from manufacturing, with the “off” originally indicating that the number was how many could be made per mold or machine. For example, a 1935 citation in the Oxford English Dictionary reads, “One off per machine does not give us much opportunity for reducing production costs,” and other citations mention “200 or so sets ‘off’” and “60 units off.” “One-off” has the same meaning as but a different history from “one of a kind.”
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