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I'd have expected it should rather be 2 hours, 4 hours max. So can top in this context be used like a synonym for max? Is this a common phrase?

8

The correct way to write the sentence is actually:

"It will take 2 hours; 4 hours tops."

Note the plural—"tops", not "top."

I can't comment on the evolution of the phrase, but here "tops" is indeed used to mean "maximum". It will take at least 2 hours, but no more than 4. This is indeed proper English, and is quite common.

I don't object to your suggestion of "...4 hours max" (or maximum), though. That would be perfectly well understood. But I think "tops" is more common.

Ah, edited to add—if ngrams are to be believed, my guess that "tops" is more common is not quite correct. It seems the two are fairly equal in recent history:

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  • Thanks for the insight. Now that you reminded me that it must be "tops" i also find this word in my dictionary :) – Michael Härtl Mar 30 '13 at 17:51
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    OED says of this usage: pl. tops n. (also at tops) at the most, at the latest. Usu. finally. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Much depends on your definition of "proper English". Personally, I'd say it's highly informal, so it's a bit irrelevant to speculate on the "correct way to write the sentence". It's a casual spoken form, and in writing the correct form would be something more like "4 hours at most" – FumbleFingers Mar 30 '13 at 18:18
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    @FumbleFingers: Well said. I'd add one other alternative for more formal contexts: "no more than four hours". – J.R. Mar 30 '13 at 20:01

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