Years’ or Year’s or Years

Inspired by the Summer Olympics, I led the "Punctuation Games" for a client yesterday. The sophisticated group took away gold, silver, and bronze medals for their wins in "100-Word Hyphen," "Apostrophe Toss," "Error-Ringing," and a final relay race in which they inserted commas, semicolons, hyphens, and apostrophes.

Apostrophe Toss raised the most questions. Here's one controversial sentence involving the use of the apostrophe:

The position requires at least five years experience in web site development.

The sentence needed to be tossed into the "s apostrophe" basket because the correct rendering is "five years' experience."

But why use the apostrophe? Because years is a possessive form.

Examples:

The opinion of the group is the group's opinion.
The reputation of the man is the man's reputation.
The rivalry of the teams is the teams' rivalry.
The pay of a week is a week's pay.
The sabbatical of a year is a year's sabbatical.
The experience of five years is five years' experience.

Many people don't like the "years' experience" construction, and I don't blame them. It's odd. But it is also correct.

If you don't want to use phrases such as "a week's pay" and "five years' experience" because they seem odd or awkward, add the word of, like these correct examples:

He is owed a week of pay.
The job requires five years of experience.
In October he will begin a year of sabbatical.

But if you are happy using "a year's time" and "two weeks' notice," keep on using them confidently. Every punctuation guide on my bookshelf promotes that usage as correct.

 

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If you need someone to proofread the punctuation (and other details) in your writing, please contact my partner, Scribendi. I don't provide editorial services, but Scribendi does fast, excellent work. 

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For more on the topic of apostrophes and possessive forms, read these past blog posts:

Apostrophe Help Please!
More Apostrophe Help!
A Tip on Apostrophes
Its? It's? Or Its'?

I will write again in a few days' time!

Lynn
Syntax Training

59 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for pointing this out so clearly!

    It is definitely one of my pet peeves – and no one seems to be able to get it right. I’ve read many a CV from a writer or editor claiming to have “ten years experience”. Ouch.

  2. Clare, you are welcome! When you are editing us Yanks, though, be sure to let us keep the period (full stop) inside the closing quotation marks!

  3. Two nations separated by a common language . . .

    I wonder what is the correct blogging etiquette? Should one Americanise spelling and punctuation when commenting on a US blog, and Anglicise when commenting on a UK blog?

    Have I just committed more faux pas?

  4. Good questions, Clare. Using your standard spelling gives readers immediate clues about your nationality. I’d say that’s normally a good thing.

    At the same time, I find myself sometimes avoiding “Hi” when I write to “English” speakers. I remember being scorned at Anne Hathaway’s cottage when I visited in college. The ticket-taker ridiculed my “Hi” as a stupid American greeting. Is it time to forget about him?

  5. Ouch – that’s terrible! Let me apologise on his behalf! I do hope the English tourist industry has improved since then – otherwise our economy really is doomed.

    For what it’s worth, I do think it’s absolutely fine to use “Hi” in emails to the English – I do it all the time and don’t know anyone who doesn’t. That said, most of the UK-based Americans who have attended my courses find the English email style much more formal. I suspect their UK colleagues are just more prone to bad corporatese . . .

  6. Hi, Clare! Thanks for relieving my fear of using that simple greeting. It’s also good to know about the UK’s more formal style or corporatese.

    I appreciate your comments.

  7. I’m a court reporter, and I’m reading through a transcript and had a question regarding
    30 year’s experience or 30 years’ experience.
    Thanks for the answer!

  8. Your advice seems wrong to me. How can years accumulate experience? The correct construction appears, to me, to be: five years experience. The years are not the subject of the clause. Years here if the plural form of year and not some semantically improbable possessive.

  9. My god, thank you so much! Microsoft Word corrected the grammar to what you just said, but indeed to me it just looked so wrong!

    Anyway, good thing for my covering letter.

    Thanks again.

  10. I have seen this construction recently, disagreed with it, looked it up myself on several web sites (as did the person who asked me about it) and I STILL disagree, even if this is supposed to be the new correct usage according to so many so-called experts. As Percy remarks, the experience does not belong to the years, it belongs to the person who has it. Style guides frequently change according to general usage, but just because a lot of people say something, does not make it grammatically correct. Style guide be damned. The World English Dictionary at Dictionary.com, as its (possessive without an apostrophe) third definition of the preposition “of”, “used after words or phrases expressing quantities: a pint of milk.” This is the use being discussed here. Would you really write “a pint’s milk?” Or more to the point, “two pints’ milk?”

  11. Hi, Meghan. This is not a new rule we are discussing. It is covered in one of my reference books, “Handbook of Business English,” which was published in 1914. I started teaching this stuff in 1983, and the rule has never even wavered from that time until now, according to all my style guides.

    As a proofreader, you risk your livelihood and your clients’ reputation if you follow the mantra “Style guide be damned.”

    As for the milk examples, they do not make sense to me with or without apostrophes. I do not believe they support your point.

    I urge you to accept this rule despite your dislike for it. I myself apply several rules I dislike. I do it because they are standards, and I would not succeed professionally if I disregarded them.

    Best wishes,

    Lynn

  12. The confusion seems to be that when one says “years of experience” one actually means years WORTH of experience. The common usage is therefore a contraction; this renders the correct usage to be without an apostrophe. The age of this rule does not make it more correct. It is just a wrong that has been repeated without proper examination.

  13. It seems to me that “He owes me a week’s pay” and “I have ten years’ experience” are two different constructions, and the correctness of the former isn’t a useful guide when considering the latter.

    “A week’s pay” is the pay deriving _from_ a week of work. The pay could be said to belong to the week.

    To say that a person has “ten years’ experience” is like saying a bottle contains “two liters’ soda” or a person grew to “60 inches’ height.” (Or even: “He owes me a thousand dollars’ pay.”) The years, like the liters or inches, are a unit of measure; they are not the owner of the object being measured.

    The apostrophe seems out of place in that context. It is being asked to do the job of a preposition that shouldn’t have gone missing. “Ten years of experience” is a far better construction.

  14. Living things and time are the only 2 possessives that can use apostrophes. That said, years’ experience always imply years OF experience – so it IS possessive. Litres of milk is not a good example as Litres are not living things nor time. So, 10 years’ experience is exactly the same scenario as 2 hours’ time.

  15. Hi, Bernard. Thanks for sharing your view. Your examples are correct.

    The editors of style guides have begun to loosen up on the requirement that only living things can possess. It has become acceptable to write “The house’s location is a selling point” and “The problem’s size is a factor.” Although traditionalists may not allow such sentences, they are commonly accepted.

    Lynn

  16. Thank you for your post. I had written years’ experience and decided to scour the web to confirm if I was correct. Always nice to have that little bit of gratification that I was correct in my usage.

  17. Thank you! I am drafting several personal resumés’ and this really cleared up the issue of how many years’ experience I have. Still, I chose to use “years of experience”.

  18. “as teacher for a period of over 10 years” is it correct ?

    can we say “over 10 years” like “been a teacher “for 10 years”?

    Thanks ..

  19. What about the rule:
    Then noun is used as a modifier(adjective) it takes singular form?????

    A ten-page book
    student book
    5 year engagement
    5 year excperience

  20. Jurate, I am not certain I understand your comment.

    Yes, your way of rendering your list is acceptable, but the last two examples should be rendered as “5-year” followed by your noun.

    Please comment again if I have misunderstood your intent.

    Lynn

  21. Thank you Lynn! I have been looking for the correct usage of this for a while now. How marvellous to see it laid out clearly with a full explanation.

  22. Can you contract “5 years of experience.” into “5 years ‘ experience”? Just removing the word “of” entirely, but not having the apostrophe because the sentence form could be interpreted differently?

  23. I’m still unsure about “years’ experience” but “a few years’ time” is definitely wrong. No apostrophe required there.

  24. Common sense should rule, that is the rule. What is readable and sounds right is and should be the rule.

    Otherwise mankind and languages would be stuck in the past. What was written in 1914 (or even 1984 for that matter) may not be relevant today.

    15 years experience – is correct, because it looks and sounds correct to most people.

    Languages are created by people for people, and languages can and do change over time. It is the books and writers who need to evolve/change. Writers cannot dictate what is right, as the masses will just ignore the so called ‘old rules’.

    Remember, except for some writers, you will be judged by the clarity and simplicity of your communication (and most certainly not by historical writing rules).

    My advice is – move with the times…..or be left behind and argue points which have no relevance in the modern world.

  25. Thanks Lynn, very useful and I did find the subsequent comments arguing you quite amusing!

    Interesting point point Tom made as how do the rules change, as a respected person in the field wrote a style sheet ‘modernizing’ the rule would that not be a rule change?

  26. Hi, Steve. When a respected expert in the field modernizes a rule, people can choose to follow the change or not.

    I used the closed form “email” in my writing before any style manual did–because I knew the change was coming, and I was impatient. I could defend the change as inevitable, but many people questioned it. When I wrote for a client, I used “e-mail” because that is the form every client used.

    It will probably be a long time before I change “two years’ time” to “two years time.” The main reason for the delay is that making that change would require making many related changes in possessive forms. I believe the change would lead to confusion and questioning rather than clarity.

    Thanks for asking.

    Lynn

  27. your criterion is what “every punctuation guide” on “your bookshelf” tells you. yet you are unable to articulate why it is actually the correct answer. prospective purchasers of your services beware!!!!!

  28. Lynn, great post, but Percy and the others have offered clear and reasoned arguments to disagree with this convention. The fact that you have some books that say to do it a certain way is not a sufficient refutation to their valid points. There was a time when everyone would ridicule a person for saying the world was round too, so suggesting that someone is wrong simply because others don’t understand or agree is not a compelling argument either. I’m about to send an important document that MS Word just flagged, and I’m sticking with 14 years experience because the other convention is stupid and nonsensical. If the recipient wants to know why, I’ll try to enlighten them as the others have done here. Proper communication is more than a set of dogmatic rules and I find it humorous when people cite the opinions of style books as universal and absolute truth.

  29. Hi, Kevin. We all make our own choices about language. My job on this blog is to offer my many years of experience and study to help people make good decisions in their business writing. I typically consult the many current style manuals on my bookshelf to support the advice I give.

    Sometimes people disagree with me and the published experts. When they can cite no expert who agrees with them, yes, they stand alone, perhaps like the first person who argued that the world was round.

    Regarding your choice of “14 years experience,” here is why I disagree:

    “He has a year’s experience”–the experience of a year. This is a possessive form, and the apostrophe is required.
    “He has 14 years’ experience”–the experience of 14 years. Again, it is a possessive form.

    Here is a comparison with which you may agree:

    “This is Mary’s car”–the car of Mary.
    “These are my friends’ cars”–the cars of my friends.

    Take what you find helpful here, and ignore the rest. However, I do suggest finding at least one acknowledged expert who agrees with you, or your argument is likely to be ignored–at least until others come around to your view.

    Lynn

  30. I’m not sure a sentence I have fits in with your examples. How would you write
    … with its judgment, only two weeks’ later.

    … with its judgment, only two weeks later.

    Which is correct according to style guides? Most examples around tend to not address this type of use.

  31. Hi, Bob. Your example does not require an apostrophe because the word after “weeks” is an adverb, not a noun. The apostrophe would be wrong in your example.

    Note the differences:

    in two weeks’ time
    two weeks later
    a day’s pay
    a day sooner
    two weeks’ delay
    two weeks ago

    I hope those examples help.

    Lynn

  32. Ah yes, I thought so. I thought I’d check as I’m proofing for an expert academic and they’d written it the first way, which I felt was incorrect. Thanks.

  33. I am a native spanish speaker and although I am fluent in english, I consider it a second language. I’ve always found grammar interesting, and although I might not know exactly why something “looks” wrong, I somehow “feel it” when something is not well written. Such was the case with “years’ experience”…I couldn’t put my finger on it, but knew that “years experience” and “year’s experience” was not quite right. Thanks for clearing this up, now I get it! Now I need help with hyphens… is it “re-sale” or “resale”, “long term” or “long-term”…how should I know the difference?

  34. Thanks for your comment, Coral. I am glad you found my explanation helpful.

    I have written quite a bit about hyphens on this blog. Why not type the word in the search box at top right (the one that says Search This Blog)? It will take you to the blogs posts I have written about hyphens.

    Lynn

  35. This article was very helpful, but I have a question on an example I can’t find. It is as follows:

    “We were able to extract 15 years worth of data.”

    Is the word “years” supposed to have an apostrophe in this sentence?

    Any help would be appreciated.

    Greg

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