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As part of a question I had on another SE site, I stumbled upon an article which has the following sentence:

If a Georgia resident plans to travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion, she may be charged with conspiracy to commit murder, punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment

Shouldn't the answer to punishable by what? be: by a 10 years imprisonment or by 10 years of imprisonment?

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No. There is an apostrophe after "years", so it means "imprisonment of ten years" - though you wouldn't actually say that, you'd say "imprisonment for ten years".

Imprisonment, like most abstracts, is a non-count noun, and doesn't take "a".

You could just about say "a ten-year imprisonment", where the article is licensed by the qualifier on "imprisonment" (compare "a very cruel imprisonment"), but it is not idiomatic. But the plural ending on "years" indicates that it cannot be that construction.

Edit: corrected "count" to "non-count" above.

  • 2
    What about OP's last suggestion; that looks right to me: by ten years of imprisonment. – Cardinal May 22 at 17:12
  • 1
    I disagree that a ten year imprisonment is unidiomatic. But that's a minor point. – Jason Bassford May 22 at 17:32
  • @Cardinal: I can't fault that, but I wouldn't say it, probably because "ten years' imprisionment" is shorter (and idiomatic, for me). – Colin Fine May 22 at 22:33
  • @JasonB - I'm not sure about what qualifies as "idiomatic," but I think Colin correctly points out which one we're more likely to encounter in printed reports. – J.R. May 22 at 22:55
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    @Cardinal "by ten years of imprisonment" does not sound right. The alternates to "punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment" are "punishable by a 10 year prison sentence" and "punishable by a sentence of 10 years in prison". – RonJohn May 23 at 1:22

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