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"some minutes, some years, some seconds" are grammatically incorrect.

But "a few minutes, a few years, a few seconds" works.

I'm trying to teach a non-native speaker this nuance but "it just sounds weird" does not feel like a satisfactory explanation. I know it has to do with count and mass nouns, because some time is correct and a few time is not, and time is a mass noun, and few can only be used with countable nouns. Minutes, years, seconds, etc. are all count nouns.

But, some can in some circumstances be used with count nouns and in others with mass nouns. What's the distinction I'm missing?

From your input I have gathered that some + time unit isn't technically wrong when used unselectively, (the "selective" sense of some is explained by Max Williams) but that it's just awkward in some cases. You don't need a some in any unselective construct with a unit of time. Years ago, for decades, in minutes, months later, over days.

Why does it sound awkward? Here's my highly heterodox and basically epistemological explanation. My first argument is that some isn't a totally amorphous quantity, that is, it actually does tell you some info about how much stuff (or how many things) it describes. I think we assume some to be countable, not in the sense of "a count noun", but in the sense that we can readily fathom its size. And furthermore I think that some connotes a smallish number, small enough so that it's readily fathomable, generally like 1-100. (This maximum "some-bound" increases for multiples of 5s, 10s, etc.) I'll give an example. Compare "I have not eaten meat for some years (now)" to "scientists believe that the earth was formed some years ago". The latter just sounds ironic. So, some sounds weird when used unselectively with large quantities because it seems to conflict with their size. Some also sounds weird with with very small quantities because it appears to provide little information. This is because we assume that the unit of time was chosen efficiently. We don't expect someone to say "2400 minutes" because it's much easier to say "40 hours". We define very small units by their part of a whole, and we assume that at a certain point someone will start using the next order of magnitude unit. If the unit is chosen efficiently then some does not tell you much about quantity, because the coefficient will stay small, and we assume "some"-size by default unless told otherwise, and some-size is small. In these cases, some is vestigial and should be dropped. But there's a happy medium where unselective "some" works with countable nouns. It's middle-of-the-range units of time where some begins to serve a purpose. It actually does give a bit of info about the actual quantity of the many things/much stuff. For example, "some years ago" is differently nuanced than just "years ago", it sounds somehow smaller. That justifies including the "some" even though it's correct without it.

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    I disagree that "some minutes, some years, some seconds" are always incorrect - the construction "Some minutes later..." is used not infrequently – costrom Apr 19 '16 at 15:08
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    For some minutes or for some seconds might not be as idiomatic as for some years, but all of them are not completely wrong. A few minutes and a few seconds are more popular as the time span is quite short. Who told you they are grammatically incorrect? – user140086 Apr 19 '16 at 15:12
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    I agree with @costrom. You can also say, "Some years ago, when I was a lot younger, ...". In this kind of context, some probably implies more than a few: some and few tend to have difference nuances. – TrevorD Apr 19 '16 at 15:13
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    Some used as a determiner: You use some in front of the plural form of a noun to talk about a number of people or things, without saying who or what they are, or how many of them there are. Some children were playing in the yard. I have some important things to tell them. thefreedictionary.com/some – user66974 Apr 19 '16 at 15:14
  • Do you think these are patternless collocations, or do they have to do with tense? Because "i will be back in some minutes" just sounds wrong to me. – nebulon Apr 19 '16 at 15:14
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I suspect that it is because "some" implies a selection, like saying "some of the minutes": ie, it implies that there is a list of possible minutes, each of which is a different object, and you're referring to some of them. This works if you are talking about people or cars: there are a finite amount of cars or people, all unique, and you can point to your selection and say "Here are some of the people.", or "Here are some people.".

However, units of time don't work like that: individual minutes aren't unique items you can select from all the possible options. They're more abstract. So to say "some of the minutes" feels wrong, and "some minutes" is a contraction of this so feels wrong too.

  • That explanation makes perfect sense in this context, but I don't understand why constructions like "some minutes later" (which still sounds odd to me) are used. – nebulon Apr 19 '16 at 15:29
  • I do think you're right, at least for smaller units of time. I'm curious about how that applies to years. "I've had chronic back pain for some years" works. "I will have chronic back pain in some years from now" is also correct, as is "I have chronic back pain some years". (same applies to passive forms) A few works in all of these too. And I think it works with over, later, and other prepositions. – nebulon Apr 19 '16 at 16:18
  • The answer sounds plausible but "some" is acceptable in "I'd like some water" and "He went out for some fresh air" where we are not speaking of different objects. – Al Maki Apr 19 '16 at 16:19
  • some water and some fresh air are mass nouns, not count nouns – nebulon Apr 19 '16 at 16:20
  • In the case of "I have chronic back pain some years", it does imply "for some of the years". But "I've had chronic back pain for some years" is not selective. – nebulon Apr 19 '16 at 16:25

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