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It was a few seconds before Mr. Dursley realized that the man was wearing a violet cloak. He didn't seem at all upset at being almost knocked to the ground.

Source: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Does ‘was’ mean ‘took place’ or is the boldfaced part all an idiom?

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    It's idiomatic English, but not an idiom, no. It's just a phrase that tells the reader how much time it took for Mr Dursley to realize something: "A few seconds later, Mr Dursely realized..." is another way of saying it.
    – user264
    Feb 24, 2013 at 8:13
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    Related: How many is a few? :^) Piggy-backing on what @Bill said, if you wanted to rephrase it with another verb, you could say, "A few seconds transpired before..."
    – J.R.
    Feb 24, 2013 at 8:52
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    An idiom is a group of words where the meaning of the group is different, and not obviously drawn, from the meaning of the separate words. The meaning of the phrase you've high lighted can be understood by understanding the separate words.
    – Matt Ellen
    Feb 24, 2013 at 14:14
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    @Matt: I think there's some room here to say this comes close to idiomatic language. Normally, if I hear the expression "It was X," I expect X to be an adjective or phrase describing the "it" (as in, "It was delicious," or "It was the happiest moment of my life"), and we can also change that wording to the present tense (e.g., "It's delicious," or "This is the happiest moment of my life"). With that in mind, I can see where "It was a few seconds before" might be tricky for a non-native to parse.
    – J.R.
    Feb 24, 2013 at 16:07
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    I see three votes to close as Too Localised. !? Google estimates 87.8 million instances of the bolded expression. Surely this is something every learner needs to know. Feb 24, 2013 at 19:01

1 Answer 1

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In this case, It was a few seconds means A few seconds passed. The construction employs the dummy or expletive *it*, and can be generalized to indicate the ‘presence’ of any extent of time or space:

  • It was several years before he realized that she had told him the exact truth.
  • It was nearly a hundred yards to the finish line when he felt a sharp pain in his calf.

You can say the same thing as there were; the it was construction favours understanding the duration or distance as a whole, while the there were construction focuses on its measure.

Is it an idiom? It’s a matter of where you draw the line. As J.R. says, it’s tricky to parse; native speakers know what it means, so they don’t have to parse it, but you do have to parse it, so it might as well be an idiom.

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