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If I say I will be here in 5 minutes (or in 5 days), in this context, does in mean after or between now and 5 minutes after? And, in that context, does within mean the same as in?

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People regularly say things like "I'll be there in five minutes" without seriously thinking they'll be picked up on either their grammar or punctuality when they actually arrive six minutes later. –  FumbleFingers Aug 31 '11 at 17:51
    
@FumbleFingers For example in a legal context, that question matters very much, and if your grammar is not up to par, then yes, you will be picked up on it. –  Hackworth Aug 31 '11 at 17:55
    
Why are you guys commenting instead of using "Answer" button? –  MoonLight Aug 31 '11 at 17:56
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@Hackworth: Standard usage for these expressions is so vague that it would be unlikely anyone would ever attempt to make a legal case based on a supposed "exact" definition. If used in a legally-binding contract, any such wording would be torn to shreds on appeal. –  FumbleFingers Aug 31 '11 at 18:06
    
@Braveyard: Because, as implied by my first comment, I do not think it's worthwhile trying to get people to say exactly what these expressions mean, since in practice they are invariably vague by intention. –  FumbleFingers Aug 31 '11 at 18:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Think of five minutes referring to the time of now till now plus five minutes. You will be there in that time period: this would be the literal meaning.

So what it literally means is that you will be there before five minutes (or eight days) has expired. However, idiomatically it means I will be there in approximately five minutes or approximately eight days. Note that for longer periods (like eight days) approximately does not mean ten days. It means now plus eight days, give or take a half a day.

If you use within -- which is not the most common way to say this -- you are indicating the strict meaning of "before five minutes has expired I will be there."

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But it's not at all uncommon for tradesmen, for example, to say they'll have your job completed "within x days". When they know perfectly well that they mean "x working days" (of which there are only 5 in a week, but they don't mind if you assume they mean "elapsed days" (of which there are 7 in every week). That difference will only be pointed out later if you complain about the job being behind schedule. –  FumbleFingers Aug 31 '11 at 20:37
    
Probably true, but contextually dependent. –  Fraser Orr Aug 31 '11 at 22:11

In is used for "expressing the length of time before a future event is expected to take place"; the event could possibly happen before, or later.

For example, if somebody tells you "I'll see you in fifteen minutes," you could meet that person fourteen minutes later, sixteen minutes later, or twenty-five minutes later.

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