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I have noticed lots of software installs asking me to wait "a few moments" recently. A moment is an unquantified interval of time that is entirely subjective, so is it meaningful to talk of a few of them?

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    Yes it is meaningful. A moment is correctly used of a very short period of time, so a few moments would still be a short time, but longer than a moment. Unfortunately some processes on a computer can take quite a long time, but it is rare for programmers to advise users that "this will take a long time, and you should take the opportunity to catch up on a good night's sleep".
    – Peter
    Apr 23 at 9:58
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    @Peter Please use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid answering questions in comments.
    – NVZ
    Apr 23 at 10:47

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Moment seems to be one of the words of the moment. Google ngrams of various phrases show an increase in usage over the last 20 years. I illustrate this with the following phrase which I think allows a fair comparison:

a moment later v. a few moments later

ngram

It is interesting that the use of ‘moment(e)’ is only found from about 1860, but both the singular and plural forms have co-existed. This shows how the words have been used in English for the past 160 years. It is perhaps a little late to ask whether the plural is ‘meaningful’ — it would seem so to many people, who regard the distinction as the same as that between ”wait a minute” and ”and wait a few minutes”.

There must be dozens of usages in English, against which you can argue on the basis of logic. My much respected English schoolmaster used to say Dickens’ title, Our Mutual Friend, was a misuse of the word ‘mutual’, as mutual could only refer to two people. For many years I even thought he was right.

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The use of "moment/s" as a description of the passage of time - is intrinsically defined by the context of its appearance. Just give me a moment of your time and I'll try to explain it.

Lets say you're a manager of an accounting firm. You are in a meeting and one of your subordinates asks to use the bathroom, he says "Sorry, just one moment, I need to go to the restroom". Now as you are the boss of the accounting firm, and currently holding a meeting, you would expect your employee to take roughly 2-3 minutes. In your head, you have just quantified what a 'moment' is. Now, lets say this employee is known for being really slack, and disrespectful. Suddenly the context switches from a punctual employee, to a lazy, disrespectful one. So, the 'moment' might quantify as 4-5 minutes.

To answer your question specifically, which I have not quite done, you need to understand that 'moment' is a wildcard, used when an exact time isn't appropriate. I have an interest in software engineering, so I feel like I can answer this quite well.

With minor software installs or programs like a file compression/decompression, or an application install, or a download verification - the ETA is near impossible to reliably determine. Because, how would you run a metric on the time that its meant to take? Sure, you can set up check points at specific points of the program or application install, but how are you meant to know how long a specific computer/cpu/gpu/drive/operating-system will take to execute up to that checkpoint. It is actually more meaningful to just tell the user whether this process will be long or short.

Now the real answer (or the tldr). "A few moments" (or any similar phrase), specifically in relation to software, denotes a passage of time that will take no longer than a few moments.

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  • Readers may observe that politicians at solemn ceremonies may call for “a moment of silence,” not “a minute of silence.” A minute of silence is much too long.
    – Xanne
    Apr 24 at 9:06
  • @Xanne absolutely correct. Context is all that matters, it does require an understanding of the nuances of English - which is why it may seem meaningless to people who have English as a second language. Although, "a minute of silence" is often synonymous with "a moment of silence". If it is custom in your culture to take a minute of silence for war memoriums/funerals, then "a moment of silence" will have that meaning.
    – Dat Boi
    Apr 24 at 9:24
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Having worked in development receiving calls for the rollout of an international financial service assistance center, best practices advised against asking customers to hold "for a moment," the problem retort being, "How long is a moment?" About ten years ago, the jargon was brought to a rather specific, "[May] I put you on a brief hold of one to three minutes?"

It was far from idiomatic for me, "1-3 minutes," in the languages I handled, especially English. Accuracy in minutes for these CSRs defeated accuracy of idiomatic expressions. An alternative was "...for up to three minutes?" This is how certain brands serving financial institutions defined a moment.

Dictionaries like Lexico give a moment as "a brief period of time." That may be 1-3 minutes, but we were shot down on saying "about two minutes."

I would have left this as a comment but will include this with agreement:

@Peter gave the following comment: Yes it is meaningful. A moment is correctly used of a very short period of time, so a few moments would still be a short time, but longer than a moment. Unfortunately some processes on a computer can take quite a long time, but it is rare for programmers to advise users that "this will take a long time, and you should take the opportunity to catch up on a good night's sleep".

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    Love this answer, it is certainly idiomatic. Most people that speak English assume a moment is '1-3 minutes'; but let me tell you, those people that speak "Australia-Postish" think its its another word for "time-until-the-queen-dies".
    – Dat Boi
    Apr 24 at 8:57

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