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I came across this sentence in my dictionary:

He hadn’t been dead five minutes before those vultures from the media were after his widow.

I am wondering why the prep for is not used there.

I also see these sentences:

Her mother had been dead for ten years.

"You're a widow?"—"Yes. My husband's been dead a year now."

It seems to me that for is optional. So, are there any differences in those sentences with or without for?

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+100

There are circumstances where you can omit for, but I don't know of any summary of the situations when it's acceptable. There are few situations where it's not acceptable to use for. One example is when you use be with the time interval as the object:

I will be five minutes - correct
I will be for five minutes - wrong

One suggestion for when it can be omitted is given in this answer, which suggests that it's OK to omit for when the time phrase includes more than, less than, etc.

My impression is that the omission of for is a stylistic trick that adds emphasis to what you are saying, for example in this sentence it emphasizes that five minutes is a very short time:

I was only gone five minutes and they stole my car!

In the same way, emphasis would certainly be relevant to your first example:

He hadn’t been dead five minutes before those vultures from the media were after his widow.

One could argue that the the widow in the second example wants to emphasize what a long time it seems to her:

"You're a widow?"—"Yes. My husband's been dead a year now."

Certainly, with for included, this would seem a more neutral statement.

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    What does I will be five minutes mean? I don't quite understand. – dan Jun 22 '18 at 6:17
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    @dan, It means "I will have finished what I am doing in five minutes". You could say it in response to the question "How long will you be?" ell.stackexchange.com/questions/125017/… – JavaLatte Jun 22 '18 at 23:18
  • @dan: I think it's a regional variation. Of course, the idea that's a valid answer to "how long will you be" is begging the question. That's the same construct used as a question. If you google the phrase "will be five minutes", you'll find this question and the phrase "I will be five minutes late". – MSalters Jun 25 '18 at 15:52
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The better option is using "for"

because it is clearer to read, i mean "dead five minutes" can be thought as: 5 minutes being dead, or wasted or something.

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Excerpt from the English Grammar in Use by Cambridge University Press:

It is possible to leave out for (but not usually in negative sentences):

  • They've been married (for) ten years. (with or without for)
  • They haven't had a holiday for ten years. (you must use for)

We do not use for + all ... (all day / all my life etc.):

  • I've lived here all my life. (not for all my life)

You can use in instead of for in negative sentences (I haven't ... etc.):

  • They haven't had a holiday in ten years. (= for ten years)

But as you may have noticed the above doesn't apply to your first example. And I guess this is probably because it conveys a bit different meaning:

He hadn’t been dead [when it was] five minutes before those vultures from the media were after his widow.

If we had 'for' it would mean that he was alive throughout that five-minute period of time but here this is not clear.

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  • How can you justify inserting "when it was"? It doesn't make sense. – JavaLatte Jun 27 '18 at 11:43
  • @JavaLatte It was my guess which was made regarding the context. Nevertheless, when I hear people saying "the gate had not been closed ten minutes before the flight" I find that they usually mean "...until ten minutes before the flight". Though people surrounding me are not native English speakers. – Karolini Jun 27 '18 at 14:39
  • The literal meaning may be the same, but there are significant differences in tone between the "until" version and the original. 1) the original is emphasising the shortness of the interval 2) the original makes the fight the most important event, whereas the until version makes the gate closing the most important event. – JavaLatte Jun 28 '18 at 2:30
  • @JavaLatte I do believe you are right about the tone, etc. But as you said "the literal meaning may be the same [...] between the 'until' version and the original". However, if we had 'for' in this example it would change the literal meaning. It would mean that the gate was certainly open throughout that ten-minute period. But there is no such implication in the 'until' version and I guess in the original version too. In my view the same applies to the OP's first example, doesn't it? – Karolini Jun 28 '18 at 9:52
  • I agree that "the door had not been closed for ten minutes" sounds like "the door had been open for ten minutes". That works with closed, because you can open the door again, but it doesn't work with "dead", because you can't un-die. This is all a side-issue anyway. Can you please explain what your "when it was" sentence is supposed to mean? I cannot understand it at all. – JavaLatte Jun 29 '18 at 7:59

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