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My wife and I recently had a conversion where I said "...but that was a few years ago now."

My meaning was it was 10-15 years ago, but wife translated as about 3 years ago, which led to a lot of confusion! (Since a few normally means around 3).

I can't find anywhere that suggests adding the "now" implies a longer time, but certainly when I read "a few years ago now." I'm thinking its a longer time than "just a few".

Note: I'm British and have lived in the US. I'd suspect this is more British than American. My wife's English is excellent, though not a native speaker.

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  • It depends on how it is said: your "that was a few years ago now" is rather longer ago than "that was only a few years ago." Jun 18, 2020 at 23:38
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    I would never adjudicate between a husband and wife: not even for the sake of English usage.
    – Tuffy
    Jun 18, 2020 at 23:41
  • It can mean pretty much anything. Generally longer than 2 years and less than 20, but it's all relative (especially when speaking with your relatives).
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 18, 2020 at 23:51
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    I would say that "a few years ago" (with or without the "now") is about three to seven years ago, whereas "a fair few years ago" is more than that, maybe more in the range you had in mind. You could also say "quite a few years ago" to get more in the double-digits range.
    – nnnnnn
    Jun 19, 2020 at 0:31
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    Quite a few would be more than three or so. Jun 19, 2020 at 2:10

3 Answers 3

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This is an age-related question.

To a twenty-year-old, a few years would be about 3.

To an eighty-year-old, a few years could be 20 or more.

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However long "a few years" is, the effect of the "now" isn't to increase or decrease the amount of time between that past moment and now -- it is merely to indicate that, with the passing of time, that amount has now lengthened to a few years.

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In the 19th century, that great grammarian, Humpty-Dumpty, addressed a very similar problem in "Alice in Wonderland". Giving us his illumination on all such problems, he stated "A word means exactly what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less."

This understanding was accepted by most grammarians until, it is believed, the early 1970s, when "A husband's place is in the wrong" was introduced.

The original theory was then amended to "A word means exactly what your wife wants it to mean, nothing more, nothing less."

As an aside, linguists have yet to find a language in which this is not true, and Noam Chomsky has taken an interest.

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  • +1 for the laughs while making the point that it really is ambiguous. Jun 19, 2020 at 9:45

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