Submitted by Warsaw Will on February 2, 2014

apostrophe with expressions of distance or time

I imagine everyone uses an apostrophe with expressions of distance or time when the number is one:

It’s only an hour’s drive from here.
They live a mile’s walk away.
A stone’s throw away.

It follows that an apostrophe should also be used in the plural version, as stipulated by, amongst others, The Guardian and Economist style guides:

It’s three hours’ drive from here.
They live two miles’ walk away.

I notice the apostrophe is often dropped here, so my question is this - do you think the apostrophe:

is always optional?
is only necessary in formal writing?
is always necessary?

or that there is some other grammatical explanation that makes the apostrophe unnecessary?

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@jayles - Yes, I checked out Google Books for this occurring in 18th and 19th century books, and few books carried possessive apostrophes of any kind before the 19th century. The great irony, of course, is that apostrophes were probably being used to show plurals of foreign words, the origin of today's 'greengrocer's apostrophe', before they were used for possession.

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If you look on wikipedia possessive apostrophe it gives the historical background and says that the convention did not become established until the nineteenth yearhundred.
What I think is happening these days is that people can't be bothered to find the punctuation on the keyboard, so apostrophes and commas are withering away.
I am not at all sure I would bother myself, esp for the plural possessive. Quite what I would do if I were writing formally by hand - well who does that these days outside an Enlgish Exam. I would hope that IELTS examiners would not get all picky about it as the meaning is usually quite clear and unambiguous, and there are far more weighty criteria to consider. On the other hand I might expect a proof-reader to correct it as per style guide. Basically dying yet not by any means dead yet IMHO.

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