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I have been searching for a while, and I haven't seen a good discussion of this phrase. It seems to me like the preposition is in question (I've heard it both ways), and the possessive is also in question (I have arguments for both).

First, the possessive. The moment is personified and it is noticing. So the phrase would be sort of magical. You're imagining a moment as a person and that moment would have very brief notice, so the meaning works. That is, almost no notice at all. The problem with this is that it's a bit crazy. How would we know how much notice a moment would give? How did something so poetic become common usage?

The other interpretation (without the possessive) is that it's a measure of the amount of notice. One moment of notice, but then I suppose it should be singular.

What are your thoughts?

Edit: It has been suggested that this is a duplicate of the "24 hours(') notice" problem. I think it's a subtly different problem. 24 hours notice can reliably be considered an amount of notice, so the phrase can certainly be interpreted as correct without the apostrophe. Moments is more complex because it can't be plural (as noted in the original question and as reinforced in the discussion) and therefore, we enter the complex discussion of the possessive's correctness. Personally, I think that discussion was worth having, and I think the answer was worth it, but given the comments (now chat), it seems like my understanding of what could/should happen on a site like this is different from the community's understanding.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ColleenV parted ways Jul 5 '19 at 18:32
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it does not appear to be about learning the English language, but rather about the logic behind a specific syntactical structure. It should not have been migrated from ELU to ELL in the first place. – laugh Jul 5 '19 at 21:18
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There are several questions packed in here:

1) How much notice would a moment have? There is some reason that the phrase evolved to "moment's notice" rather than "a moment OF notice", but I was unable to find the history of the phrase to further clarify. Looking at it practically, I would not think that a moment would have very much notice. Further, since being poetic is giving words life beyond their obvious meaning, this is definitely poetic.

2) How did something poetic become common usage? Given that the use of the phrase seems to really catch on after 1791, I would assume that something that was popular used the phrase. Some gentle searching of famous works at that time (particularly poetry) did not reveal use of the phrase, so at this point anything I say would just be speculation.

3)a) (implied question) Is the possessive correct? It is but not for the reason you think. My research suggests that 24 hours' notice is incorrect, but moment's notice is correct. As you can see in the graph, "24 hours notice" is the older phrase and given that they both persist (despite hours' being currently and generally more popular), I usually go with the oldest being the winner. Further, the interpretation that "24 hours" is a measure of the notice seems reasonable. This also, I think, proves that this question is not a duplicate given that the phrases are different. The difference between the two classes of phrase is clear given the usage pattern moment's notice versus moments notice. Finally, it's clear that possessives are extremely complicated, so I would think that explains the lack of definitive discussion.

4) (Implied question) What about the beginning of the phrase? If you accept the usage data, the correct phrase is "at a moment's notice", at least according to the ngram viewer. I don't have a great answer for why though.

5) (Implied question) Is the moment personified? Yes. Unless you only use a narrow definition of personified. If you don't consider the relationship between the moment and the notice, the phrase makes no sense. Therefore, we must consider how much notice a moment would give, and to do that, you have to think about a moment having attributes like patience and forethought, which is very person-y. Ironically, I think the problem came when @FumbleFingers "misparsed" @RocketBouchard's sentence "The moment is personified and it is noticing." I think that the OP meant to use "noticing" as a verb as in "providing notice". Probably not the best choice when asking this kind of question. It also should be clarified that this personification is only happening with specific phrases like "moment's notice". Car's window, for instance, doesn't require us to know (or imagine) anything about the car or how it relates to the window.

  • Thanks for the answer, @BuySexual! nGram suggests that "moment OF notice" has never really been popular. What does that imply? – RocketBouchard Jul 8 '19 at 17:57

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