<< back to the archive list

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.

“The dispute involves a comment she made in informing a client she was leaving the firm. She said she was getting married. The client said it seemed kind of sudden. She replied, ‘I have known him for 25 years.’

“Hence the dispute. Some in the office claim she knew him for a couple of years 25 years ago. Others claim she has known him for 25 years. We have been having a good chuckle over this and an even better series of discussions. Even the lady in question is curious. What is the answer?”

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.”

To “know” someone can be nothing more than having met him, but to “have known” the person for a period of time implies keeping up with him. Of course your co-worker and her new husband are all caught up now, but they weren’t for more than two decades. The usage point here is a subtle, subjective one, so I wouldn’t call your co-worker flat-out wrong for saying she’d known the man for 25 years. But I do think it was misleading of her. “We met 25 years ago” would have been more precise.

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.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list