7

They both sound right and I've found examples of both. Is there a slight difference in meaning?

The dream itself, which seems to occur in a nick of time, is in some ways nearly timeless, for we can often remember it as a cluster of simultaneous scenes which we have to sort out in their time sequence when telling or writing them down, and in innumerable instances people say: “And then there was somehow another scene, but I do not know where it belongs in the sequence.”
Source: Psyche and Matter (1992) By Marie-Louise von Franz

From the observer's seat, the show was a chain of mini-productions, each one happening in a nick of time. Pull a jumper into the show course, coil the rope, pick up the Air Chair guy, then three more jumpers, doubles, around-the-boat slalom. The 30 minutes seemed like five.
Source: Boating Life (magazine) 1997

and

“ You were a wee one, […] I dropped the reins just like that and caught you just in the nick of time. Ah, that was a close shave, and it put such a fright into you, sure and glory be to God, I didn't know how I would stop you from crying, and I took you into a store and bought you a penny's worth of candy.”
Source: The Face of Time (2008) By James Thomas Farrell

5 Answers 5

19

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

4
  • 3
    But couldn't "time" have several nicks?
    – HaL
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 19:15
  • 3
    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
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 20:35
  • Research in the form of citations has been added to the question, so you might like to review your answer. Then again, you might not, it's been a long time. The 12-year-old question was recently closed for lack of research.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 16:15
  • 1
    The examples are clearly thinking "a nick of time" is a valid phrase with a different meaning to "the nick of time", so I don't see how you can say the former is definitely wrong.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 31, 2023 at 10:18
4

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"

1

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

1

I am currently reading a book(Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks). It refers to miners in the seventeenth century having to continually work their claims. If it remained unworked for three continuous nicks, the claim would be taken off them. Presumably Ms Brooks has researched that but I can’t find a definition of nick in this context

0

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.

1
  • Research in the form of citations has been added to the question, so you might like to review your answer. Then again, you might not, it's been a long time. The 12-year-old question was recently closed for lack of research.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 16:17

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