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The piece of news from the Huffington Post reads...

In 2006, after 20 years sober, he checked himself into rehab for alcoholism. He opened up about his struggles with addiction to alcohol and cocaine in a powerful interview with The Guardian and on "Good Morning America."

What sort of use is that? An adjective after a noun clause without any preposition? Or better use noun for that reason? ...after 20 years of soberness... or something the like?

I checked all the examples of the word sober here, on MW but none of them fits the structure of HP.

  • For your example, if you have to, you should use after 20 years of sobriety. And, 20 years sober is the concise way of implying 20 years of sobriety – Manish Giri Aug 12 '14 at 6:27
  • @LasciviousGrace I guess after 20 years of soberness is not incorrect though. Do you find it awkward? – Maulik V Aug 12 '14 at 6:32
  • Not a native speaker, but yes, I do find it a bit awkward! Also, I haven't encountered such use of soberness very often. – Manish Giri Aug 12 '14 at 6:40
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    I'm not sure I would consider that usage of soberness in a blog to be very authoritative. – Manish Giri Aug 12 '14 at 7:43
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    There is another question very similar to this: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/90438/… – JavaLatte Aug 27 '16 at 7:07
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+50

In linguistics, ellipsis (from the Greek: ἔλλειψις, élleipsis, "omission") or elliptical construction refers to the omission from a clause of one or more words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the remaining elements. - wikipedia

In this case, the sentence carries the sense that he had been sober for 20 years, after which he lapsed.

The 'full' phrase would be something like "20 years (of being) sober", with the portion in the brackets omitted to give "20 years sober".

Note that ellipsis requires the context to fill in the meaning of the missing words. Often, as is the case in the examples in the wikipedia article linked above, the sentence itself would contain similar words - e.g. John can play the guitar, and Mary (can play) the violin.

That is not the case here, so we need to rely on the form being sufficiently common that the shorter form has become idiomatic.

The following 'real-life' example helps to establish that the suggested ellipsis is valid. The title of the following article refers to durations of sobriety, and the body of the article contains the ellipsed form. (Emphasis, mine.)

Title: "Milestones of Sobriety: 30 and 90 Days — 1, 5 and 10 Years"

In the article: At 10 years sober, Becky seems like a success story.

- Dual Diagnosis

Here is another example. This time, the title provides the ellipsed form and the body of the article contains the clue to the missing words.

Title: 5 Things I Learned About Addiction After 5 Years Sober

In the article: It's been a couple of years since I wrote on this subject, but the short version is that I used to be a slobbering drunk.

- by John Cheese, Cracked Dispensary

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  • Sometimes I feel that we can explain every weird phrase with "ellipsis". Can you show real life examples of this type/patterm of ellipsis in use? – Alan Carmack Aug 27 '16 at 15:12
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    @AlanCarmack Good point. I've now expanded on your point in my answer and added a couple of examples of the pattern in use. – Lawrence Aug 27 '16 at 22:45
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Although I would agree with ellipsis, I will propose substantive phrase and metonymy.

In this particular context, "20 years sober" (or "20 year sober", a variant) can be seen as a specific milestone in the life of an alcoholic with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as shown by the associated badge/medallion (XX in Roman for twenty), called "sobriety coin":

AA Back Bronze Medallion Chip Coin

One can celebrate it under the name of soberversary (UD):

To celebrate my tenth soberversary, I am going to run a marathon.

The path is hard:

Early recovery is nothing like being 2, 4, or 8 years sober (source)

So "sober" is not just an adjective: blended with "20 years", it become an event, a period, albeit conceptual. I understand the sentence as: "after having achieved twenty years of sobriety" or "after earning the XXth sobriety coin". In this interpretation, one could talk about the figure of metonymy:

a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.

Here, one can consider a '20 years sober' badge, as a three-word metonymy for himself, a 'résumé'.

As for English grammar, the whole expression seems to be called a "substantive phrase", or "noun phrase",

a word or word group functioning syntactically as a noun (Merriam-Webster)

and works as in "after 20 years of war", "after the rain". One very common occurrence of this substantive form is with "married": "twenty years married", an accomplishment with its anniversaries (no other comparison to alcohol). For instance:

Well, I went into remission and started planning a party, a graduating-with-my-Masters Degree, 10-year sober, 10-year married, 1 year in remission party (source)

Cooper compared it to his rock star image vs the 40 year married , 30 year sober ,born again , youth counseler that he is (source)

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    Supplying some real life examples of after twenty years married would help. – Alan Carmack Aug 29 '16 at 5:05
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For some reason, to me,

In 2006, after 20 years sober, he checked himself into rehab for alcoholism.

does not "sound" quite right because of the contrast between being sober and seeking rehab

In 2006, after 20 years of being sober, he checked himself into rehab for alcoholism.

might sound more fluid. It could just be stylistic.

However,

In 2006, after 20 years sober, he opened up about his struggles with addiction

does sound fine since there is no contrast and "20 years sober", a shortened form of the phrase "after 20 years of being sober", is used for emphasis in a journalistic headline sort of way.

An alternative might be

In 2006, after 20 years of sobriety
In 2006, after 20 years of being sober
In 2006, after 20 years of sobering (up)

though sobriety may sometimes not be understood to mean exactly same as
being sober (teetotalling)

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I've just read from A Student's Introduction to English Grammar the other day that an adjective can indeed take a noun phrase as its modifier like :"five year old", "two hours long" , "a bit over powering"

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  • Ah, that's convincing! +1 – Maulik V Aug 12 '14 at 7:51
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    So, does "20 years" denote here a measure of soberness, as "5 years" is a measure of "oldness" (age)? It seems to, from the syntax, if soberness is measured in time... but that seems unusual to me (maybe because I'm not too acquainted with alcoholics?) – laugh salutes Monica C Aug 27 '16 at 9:32
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The best room available, the only decision possible, the worst choice imaginable -- as it turns out, postpositive* adjectives happen, even in English. 

The phrases above would still make sense with a more conventional word order: the best available room, the only possible decision, the worst imaginable choice.  There are, however, other phrases which only make sense when the modifier is postpositive: the best room available in the city, the only decision possible at this time, the worst choice imaginable under these circumstances. 
 

The Wikipedia page concerning the postpositive adjective includes an interesting example:

I'm here to find the responsible people
I'm here to find the people responsible

We tend to read the first as meaning people who generally do the right thing.  We tend to read the second as meaning people who have done something wrong.  This is a very large change in meaning that results from a very small change in position. 

I'm here to find the people responsible for this mistake

Just like "available in the city", "possible at this time" and "imaginable under these circumstances", "responsible for this mistake" is naturally postpositive.  The word "responsible" does not modify "people" on its own.  It is part of a larger phrase that as a whole modifies the noun. 

When we encounter "the people responsible", we assume that it's the people responsible for something specific -- people who are circumstantially responsible.  When we encounter "the responsible people", we assume that it's people who are inherently responsible.  This explains why "the responsible people" seems good while "the people responsible" seems bad. 
 

after 20 sober years
after 20 years sober

A similar but more subtle shift in meaning occurs here.  "20 sober years" can easily be read as 20 serious years, 20 grave years, 20 dull years, 20 boring years -- the years themselves are inherently, intrinsically sober, and only those senses of the word "sober" that can directly apply to the years make sense.  In the original, it is not the years themselves that were sober.  The man was sober.  He spent those 20 years refusing and avoiding intoxication. 
 

"After 20 years sober" expresses the same general sentiment as "after staying sober for 20 years" or "after 20 years of sobriety**". 

_______________ 

* Why "postpositive" instead of the more sensible "postpositional"? "Postpositional" would naturally pair with "prepositional" -- but English grammar already uses "prepositional" and "preposition" to mean something entirely different. The oddity is that a so-called prepositional phrase is ordinarily postpositive. It would be far too confusing to discuss the common postpositional prepositional phrase, so we won't.

**  Because the word "sobriety" exists, there is no need to form "soberness" out of "sober". If "sobriety" didn't exist, "soberness" would be a reasonable formation.

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