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They both sound right and I've found examples of both.

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

Definitely "the" nick of time. It is a specific thing - one chance. You don't get nicks of time.

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But couldn't "time" have several nicks? – HaL Mar 23 '11 at 19:15
Not in this idiomatic sense. "The nick of time" is the last possible second to do something. If there's more than one last possible second, then one of them wasn't actually the last. – Hellion Mar 23 '11 at 20:35

I believe the "in the nick of time" (the popular usage) is short for "In the last nick of time", with nick being a unit of measure. In which case, to do something at the last possible moment would be "in THE nick of time" or "in THE LAST nick of time", whereas to do something QUICKLY would be to do it "in A nick of time"

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I've always seen it as "the nick of time"

Could you give any examples of where 'a nick of time' has been used?

EDIT: After some more thought

I have always understood a nick to be a small piece of something, for example if I were to say

I took a nick out of my penknife blade

In which case using 'a nick' would be valid if you were to say say

There is a nick in my penknife blade

When referring to time you wouldn't be able to use 'a nick' in the same way as 'the nick' though

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I suspect that if "in a nick of time" was valid, it would have a different use case than "in the nick of time" but I've never seen it used. It doesn't really sound right either, since there are no "nicks" of time. I know, I'm a Nick!

He finished his drink in a nick of time, so they could leave as soon as possible.

He jumped in the nick of time to avoid the train.

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