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I received a copy from a client with the following phrase: "Our current team boasts of a combined 90 man years worth of experience in the field of XYZ".

While on its own it sounds phonetically right, I am unsure if the sentence itself is grammatically right, considering the experience doesn't belong to only a single man here but man years means more than one person's experience combined together.

This brief is meant for a company website, therefore my hesitance about going with the original copy. Please help me with the correct usage of the phrase.

TIA, please excuse any mistakes. English is my second language.

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9 Answers 9

27

I would omit the word "man" and simply say that our current team boasts of a combined 90 years' worth of experience.

This is the way I've seen it written many times.

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  • 10
    years' worth - it's a possessive. ["Thousand Dollars Worth" or "Thousand Dollars' Worth". Is this a Possessive? ](english.stackexchange.com/questions/25749/…)
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 22, 2023 at 13:58
  • 7
    As mentioned elsewhere, boast in the sense "to possess and often call attention to (something that is a source of pride)" is transitive and does not require "of".
    – Stuart F
    Oct 22, 2023 at 18:30
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    @jsw29 the "combined" in the sentence suggests person-years over team-years to me.
    – Ty Hayes
    Oct 23, 2023 at 12:17
  • 18
    Even simpler: "Our team boasts 90 years combined experience"
    – warren
    Oct 23, 2023 at 13:02
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    As an aside, while I agree that the phrasing proposed by @warren is vastly preferable, I find this turn of phrase to be largely useless. One hundred eighty people with six months experience have a combined ninety years experience, as do three people with 30 years experience. The latter is vastly more impressive, and one cannot make any valuable conclusion without knowing which it is. (I admit that the former is highly unlikely; just emphasizing the point.) I would advise your client to drop this claim entirely. It is equivalent to "our team has people with experience."
    – JakeRobb
    Oct 25, 2023 at 14:48
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As has been said by Mr. Ashworth in a comment, the standard term to unambiguously express this concept is man-year (hyphenated), which is analogous to the more familiar man-hour. Many people will nowadays regard that expression as sexist, and to avoid that perception, using person-year instead of it may be preferable, but that does not affect the concerns about syntax and punctuation that are at the core of the question.

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    'person-year' makes my teeth itch. It's not even 'woke', it's 80s 'PC'. It's hopelessly outdated, ugly & forced. I would avoid that more than man-year [which I would never use these days either].
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 22, 2023 at 16:16
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    @Tetsujin I once said that thing about itchy teeth and the heavens opened up on me. Ha ha.
    – Lambie
    Oct 22, 2023 at 16:28
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    @Tetsujin, fair enough, but these are considerations of style. One may argue, as you did in your own answer, that in this case the avoidance of ambiguity ought to be sacrificed to the considerations of style, but this is still a sacrifice. If one wants to express the concept without any possibility of a misunderstanding, nothing can quite do the job as well as person-year.
    – jsw29
    Oct 22, 2023 at 16:43
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    @Crazymoomin - I like a moomin who isn't afraid to call a spade a 'human-powered manual earth moving implement'. ;) I nearly spit my coffee the first time I heard someone say "Madam Chairperson"… so near, yet so far.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 23, 2023 at 16:51
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    @Tetsujin Irrespective of its effect on your teeth, "person-year" is currently 3 times more popular than "man-year" according to Google Ngrams (although neither are very popular compared to man-year's heyday in the 60s). Maybe because I grew up with terms like "salesperson", they sound perfectly correct to me. When "Chairperson" is the name of the job, saying "Madam Chairperson" seems straightforward. My point is that anyone's perception of these terms depends a lot on the culture that they grew up in and younger folks might find pre-PC terms like "stewardess" awkward and unfamiliar. Oct 24, 2023 at 14:58
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The traditional way of saying this was “Man-Years.” (The first time I remember seeing this was in 1986 or ’87, on the back of the box of the game Starflight, which boasted, “The equivalent of 15 man-years in development”—an astounding figure when most games were still 8-bit.)

This originally was considered a gender-neutral term (for instance, both MIT and the IEEE say, “Approximately 2000 man-years of engineering were consumed in the development of the Apollo computer hardware,” much of which famously was done by women such as Margaret Hamilton.) Many people today prefer “person-years”, “worker-days” or something more specific like “developer-days.”

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  • Twist my arm and I'll use "capita-years" for the gender neutral. Upside: it aligns with the existing and common gender neutral "per capita". Downside: It's making casual use of Latin, which some people loathe. Oct 23, 2023 at 20:39
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    @Mark_Anderson Anni capitum, then?
    – Davislor
    Oct 23, 2023 at 20:51
  • Is this answer any different from the wiki answer posted earlier? Note that posting something as a wiki answer is an implicit invitation to everybody in the community to improve it, so if the only difference is the addition of historical details, they could have been incorporated into the wiki answer, which would probably be more helpful to the future visitors to this page.
    – jsw29
    Oct 23, 2023 at 21:33
  • @jsw29 I think my answer is a bit too opinionated to edit into a CW.
    – Davislor
    Oct 23, 2023 at 22:10
  • Yeah, I don't mind "person-years" (call me woke if you like, I'd rather be woke than asleep...). But "worker-days" or "worker-years", or in IT contexts "developer-days" all seem even better because they answer the question of "people doing what, exactly?" Oct 25, 2023 at 18:56
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As no other answer has mentioned it, I'll mention that "combined 90 men’s years experience" is not grammatical, and is unlikely to be understood at all. (I didn't understand what you meant by it until I read the rest of the title.) "Man-years" is acceptable only because it's a standard unit of measure.

I agree with others that "years" is a better unit here. "A combined 90 man-years" is, if nothing else, redundant.

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    @Lambie That's what I said. If I edit the post to say "ungrammatical" instead of "incorrect", will you retract your downvote, if that was you? This answer was at +3, now it's +3/-2, and I have no idea why.
    – benrg
    Oct 23, 2023 at 15:43
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    a combined 90 man-years experience :)
    – Lambie
    Oct 23, 2023 at 16:29
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Part of this topic may be more mathematical notation than English Grammar. A single "man-year" is a unit of measure, much like a "kilowatt-hour". It is the first thing multiplied by the second, and can be interpreted as "one man's efforts for one year", or in the second example "one kilowatt for one hour".

More than one "kilowatt-hour" is "kilowatt-hours", the whole unit is pluralised and not the inidividual elements. i.e. it is never "kilowatts-hours", or "men-hours".

This doesn't answer all aspects of the question, and I won't touch the gender side of it with a proverbial barge-pole!

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Preamble

When questions ask whether X or Y is correct, the answer “Z is to be preferred” may be considered by some to be off-topic. However this is not a quiz site, but a site concerned (among other things) with English grammar and usage, so I consider it legitimate to suggest improvements in the choice of words, especially if I explain the reasoning behind my choices.

My preferred answer

Between them, the members of our team can draw on over 75 years’ experience in XYZ.

Rationale and alternatives

  • “Between them” avoids the “man years” problem. The latter should go because it is an unnecessary technical phrase (and politically incorrect — not that this bothers me personally). My original version used “combined experience”, but singling out the members of the team conveys a more human feel, in my opinion. (Which is the main reason — rather than the problem of number agreement — that I don’t have just “our team”.)

  • “Draw on” is used rather than “boast” because boasting is vulgar. I had originally the simple “has”, considered the less bald than “possesses”, and wondered about “can count”, “can call upon”, “is bolstered by” or “can claim”. I decided on “draw on” as it was not merely descriptive, but indicated an action — a practical application of their experience. Action, not words, boastful or not! (“Draw upon” would be a little more elegant.)

  • “over 75 years’ ”, rather than “90 years’ ”. This may seem strange as 75 is less than 90. But 90 is too precise, and 75 has a better ‘feel’ than 90. The “over” buffers the statement against change (drop the unnecessary “current”), and avoids the feeling of bean counting.

  • I notice that I omitted “the field of” before “XYZ”. Although this was inadvertent, I would stick with it (fewer words) if it works in context (as it would with e.g. Boiler installation, Roof repair, Bathroom decoration, Rat catching.)

In summary, although the purpose of this site is not to write advertising copy, the choice of words is governed to some extent by the psychology of the intended audience. For a website, short, punchy, natural language seems appropriate. This I have tried to provide.

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  • "Cumulative" probably emphasizes what you want more than combined. Sounds nicer too to my ears.
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 22, 2023 at 22:47
  • No, that's wrong: it doesn't distinguish between a one-man company where the proprietor is now a senile 110 and an industrial conglomerate that's had multiple generations of engineers working in a field for 90 years. "Man-year"- not to mention man-hour, man-month (nod to Brooks) and so on is a well-established metric. Oct 23, 2023 at 6:32
  • @DKNguyen I wasn't completely happy with "combined", and woke up with a clear mind and an answer which I prefer because it uses more natural language — "between them". Cumulative is ok, but four syllables.
    – David
    Oct 23, 2023 at 9:57
  • @MarkMorganLloyd It is, and that metric is used in specific places where it is used to indicate the amount of effort and time required to produce an outcome. However, it is not used in advertising copy to describe the experience of the staff. I'm unable to find a single example of "X combined man-years of experience," but I can find thousands with "X combined years of experience." Oct 23, 2023 at 10:15
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    Between them or among them?
    – jsw29
    Oct 23, 2023 at 21:37
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I would lose the word 'man' entirely. It's very much tone deaf to today's language usage standards.

Also, you don't really boast of experience, just boast it.

So, and as already mentioned in comments, just use

Our current team boasts a combined 90 years' worth of experience in the field of XYZ.

You could even lose 'worth of' to make it a bit more pithy.

My ideal form, though, would be

Our current team boasts 90 years' combined experience in the field of XYZ.

One thing to note about boasting a team's 90-year-experience is if it turns out they have 250 people in that department;) It's far more impressive if there are only three.

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    I'd add that "90 mens' years experience" looks like you have 90 men, each with year of experience.
    – HAEM
    Oct 22, 2023 at 15:40
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    You don't really need to over-explain this. It is pretty idiomatic when advertising experience in a field. Standard 'business-speak'. Of course, it will always collapse if the one guy with 40 years' experience leaves & the rest have only been there 6 months. Such is the power of advertising to basically lie through its teeth whilst technically telling the truth. I have a friend & ex-work colleague. Between us we have 62 years' combined experience in a certain industry. That doesn't really give away that I have 8 years & he has the other 54.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 22, 2023 at 16:11
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    I once read that the first Apple Mac's operating system took 100 man-years effort to write. That could perhaps be 'programmer-years'. Oct 22, 2023 at 19:09
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    @WeatherVane Given how dogged with problems that effort was, perhaps 700 dog-years would be closer to the mark. :)
    – tchrist
    Oct 22, 2023 at 22:36
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    @tchrist oh those dog days. Oct 22, 2023 at 22:38
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The point is that your team consists of some number of individuals, each of whom has some years of experience, and you are adding the years of experience of each individual to arrive at a sum across all members of the team.

So I would at least change the sentence to

The members of our current team have a combined 90 years of experience in the field of XYZ.

("Have" rather than "boast of"; "years" instead of "man years" since I accumulate one year of experience every year, not one man-year; and delete "worth", assuming we are talking actual years of experience rather than some kind of substitute for experience. You might want to edit further as suggested in other answers.)

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  • Why is everyone saying of experience? 90 years' experience is fine.
    – Lambie
    Oct 23, 2023 at 15:09
  • @Lambie I wrote it that way because it’s closer to the way the original is written, and as I implied, I did not attempt to fix everything in the sentence.
    – David K
    Oct 23, 2023 at 17:11
  • Well, I think it's a good idea to fix everything...
    – Lambie
    Oct 23, 2023 at 17:12
  • @Lambie Should I go as far as the answer that says to avoid talking about experience and instead talk about expertise? There is no “fix everything”; someone will always disagree with something.
    – David K
    Oct 23, 2023 at 17:16
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Before:

Our current team boasts of a combined 90 man years worth of experience in the field of XYZ.

After:

Our current team boasts a combined 90 years of experience in the field of XYZ.

Commentary:

  • Delete of; boast the transitive verb is followed by an object.
  • Delete man (unless you also have cats or some such working for you).
  • Delete worth (it’s unnecessary)

Also note that if your team comprises, say, 90 members, they have on average only a year of experience each. Or, as asked at and commented on at Reddit:

What is the point of saying “____ years of combined experience”?

        — My mind just goes to the weird scenarios. Like one 92 year old guy in a wheelchair and 10 guys in their early 20s.

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