Q&A: Years’ vs Years experience?

Each week, we take an informative and light-hearted look at the important punctuation and grammar issues of the day, including the much-maligned apostrophe. This week, inspired by one of our newsletter readers, we tackle a particularly knotty one…

Q: Hi there, I was editing something the other day and saw this: “28 years' research”, so I promptly changed it to “years” (no apostrophe). But later on, I saw it again, so double checked with my grammar ‘phone-a-friend' and she said my change had been right. But then SHE spotted it with the apostrophe and now we're currently writing this from our panic room thinking the world is about to end. Please help us.
A: Firstly, kudos on the panic room, but it's okay, the Four Horsemen of the Apostrophe are not riding into town just yet.

Q: Phew! But, we're still confused.
A: Yep, it comes up a LOT, this one. (In fact, as soon as you asked the question, the entire readership of this blog leaned in 15cm closer to the screen.) It's a great question. But, sadly, if you had really needed that ‘phone-a-friend', then Eddie McGuire would be introducing the next contestant right about now.

Q: So it's “28 years' research”??? But why? Arggh!! What??
A: Ahem. Are you done? Okay, you're gonna hate this answer, but it's simply how English rolls – possession is channelled through the measure of time. You might argue that the researcher owns the research, but in these sentences, the research is owned by the years.

Q: I'd like to ask the audience please.
A: Haha, I know it seems odd. But since when has English ever made sense? A good test is knowing that “one year's research” is correct, so if the year owned it there, our rules must follow for multiple years to own it too, hence the apostrophe after the ‘s'.

Q: So my resumé should say “I have 12 years' experience” and in my last job I was owed “four weeks' pay”??!
A: Absolutely. Think of it like eating Vegemite in America. It doesn't SEEM right, and people may look at you oddly, but it is perfectly normal.

Q: Wait! That Sandra Bullock movie “Two Weeks Notice”! No apostrophe. Thank you and goodnight. Booyah!
A: Nope. The people who made that movie did what you did. They got it wrong. Should've had an apostrophe. And if it had, it probably would have won Best Picture. (Tongue, meet cheek.)

Q: Oh. So is there any way to remove ambiguity?
A: Chuck the word “of” in the middle and you instantly defuse the whole thing. “One year of experience/12 years of experience.” It's back to being a singular/plural. That's a nice trick to use if you feel more comfy without an apostrophe.

Q: Wow, okay then. But finally, what about “I've got three weeks worth of books to catch up on” or “50 dollars worth of gummy snakes”…?
A: That's a lot of gummy snakes. But yeah, trust us (we did a lot of checking!) – you'll still need that apostrophe. Here, ‘worth' is something owned by the weeks or dollars. So it would be “three weeks' worth of books”, “50 dollars' worth of gummy snakes” (to differentiate from “a dollar's worth of snakes”) or even “28 years' worth of research”. Remember, if the singular needs the apostrophe, the plural would need it too.

Q: Thanks so much. I'll send you some of those gummy snakes in a few weeks' time!
A: Excellent apostrophe usage – you've nailed it! And thank you, we like red ones best.

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