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The other day I heard someone say:

They've been going out a week; I mean, that's not (a) serious (relationship).

I wondered if she was speaking correctly, which is presumable, since she was a native American English speaker. But more often I here the for when people talk about duration. So is it also possible to leave out for? Maybe only in the informal register?

EDIT: There was a heavy stress on the word week. Does it play a role in this matter?

EDIT#2: ... OK. It's more suitable as an answer.

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Short answer: I would say that for can be omitted, but everyone may not agree with me. Its felicity may depend on context.

My answer focuses on the question you overheard, but my comments apply also to the question in your title ('I've been doing this (for) a week').


As a native speaker (AmE), I tend to think that whether for is necessary depends on the construction, context, and current usage, as well of course on the speaker's dialect or idiolect.

I certainly would rarely say

[Can you] wait for a second/a minute, I need to tie my shoe.

I would omit for in the sentence above. This is true whether I express it as an imperative (not using can you) or a question. Ngrams seems to back me up on this:

enter image description here

A search using second in both phrases returns a flat line (comparatively zero results) for the expression with for.

Another construction where the omission of for seems well suited is

I'm gone ten minutes/two days and (come back) and this is what happens?

Again, a short(er) period of time seems to work better here.

Thus

They've been going out a week and this is what happens?

seems fine.

As for the original sentence

They've been going out a week; I mean, that's not (a) serious (relationship),

in general, it might sound better with some qualifier such as only or now:

They've been going out a week now; I mean, that's not (a) serious (relationship).

You know, a lot depends on delivery (how it is said).

If it is said with no stress on any word or meaningful pauses in delivery, it seems a bit 'iffy' to me, but I would not judge it substandard but only say that for would improve it.

However, if week is stressed, it is definitely well suited or 'felicitous'.

Likewise if there were a meaningful pause between the two clauses, as in

They've been going out a week;...I mean, that's not (a) serious (relationship),

One assumes the first clause is a statement of fact, and if it is followed by a meaningful pause (a few moments is long enough) and then the second clause is stated as a 'commentary' on the first, that sounds fine also.

Used on its own the first clause sounds especially felicitous without for in answer to the question:

How long have they been going out?

and the reply

They've been going out a week.

Note we sometimes use the grammar or construction of the question in our responses.

So if the question had been

How long have they been going out for?

(whose felicity seems questionable, or at least to depend on dialect)

the response with for would not be unexpected.

Thus, since the interrogative form seems better to me (and I would think, most native speakers) without for, I'm not surprised I can accept the like response.

  • Yes; she put a heavy stress on week. I'm quite surprised at your prophecy(!), and how a stress can play a role in this matter. You broke down your answer into different parts, some of them I found myself familiar with: if it was an exam I'd choose wait a second over wait for a second (thinking of it as a fixed idiom), and choose the version without for for an answer to How long have they been going out? (out of respect for symmetry). – Færd Jan 12 '16 at 21:12
  • But I couldn't extract a rule from the other parts and examples. Why does a stressed 'week' not need the preposition? What does a qualifier (now, only, ...) or a pause do that makes my quotation sound better to you? You see, if you gave me some sort of reason, I'd be able to apply it elsewhere, it'd be more generative. But as it is, it's a matter of fact with rather a limited use for me. Thanks a lot anyway. – Færd Jan 12 '16 at 21:12
  • @MJF I'll try to address these issues as I have time, or perhaps others can. I just spent an hour writing a question. – GoDucks Jan 12 '16 at 21:57
  • I think I bombarded you with questions! Sorry about that. I edited my post as you suggested. Good luck with your question over there. :) – Færd Jan 13 '16 at 2:41
  • I posted an answer based on your thoughts. I'd be delighted to hear your opinion about it. – Færd Jan 13 '16 at 5:05
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The indication of "how long" (time span) is normally done with for + time span. "For" can be omitted if clearness does not suffer. I was never interested in searching for any rules. I think there aren't any. I consider the drop of "for" as a stylistic device of authors that I ( English is not my native language) never use, at least I think so. I do how-long indications with "for".

I've just read "for" in The Free Dictionary. At the bottom of the entry there is a long comment on usage. But a comment about drop of "for" in "for + span of time" is lacking. Should I find something I'll add it here.

Added:In Google Ngram I asked for (Sleeping Beauty) "slept for a hundred years" and "slept a hundred years". https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=slept+for+a+hundred+years%2C+slept+a+hundred+years&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cslept%20for%20a%20hundred%20years%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cslept%20a%20hundred%20years%3B%2Cc0

Of course, this shows no rule. But I think one can say "for" can be dropped.

  • Someone obviously disagrees with me, since they've downvoted my answer, but I think there is a "rule" here. In fact, there may be several principles involved, since I note that He hesitated a second was once the more common form, but in recent decades He hesitated for a second has significantly overtaken it. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '16 at 17:59
  • @FumbleFingers - I assure you it was not me who gave the down-vote. – rogermue Jan 12 '16 at 18:51
  • It never crossed my mind that you might have. But I was motivated to post my comment because you say you don't think there are any rules. Maybe "rules" is a bit strong (I just referred to a "principle" that might affect the decision to omit for), but I'm pretty sure that statistically speaking you're much more likely to find the "prepositionless" form in contexts where the timespan is longer than might be expected (and much less likely to encounter it in contexts where the timespan is relatively short). – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '16 at 18:58
  • Nice Ngram. You may want to compare with this one and this one. – Færd Jan 13 '16 at 2:57
  • @MJF Interesting. The astonishing thing is that I have not found a usage note about drop of for in the big renowned dictionaries. – rogermue Jan 13 '16 at 3:11
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This is what I've gathered so far as a potential theory.

When a preposition goes before a phrase, (part of) its duty is to separate that phrase from the rest of the sentence, and point out what that phrase is meant to do, semantically and syntactically.
Aside from the idiomatically fixed expressions with or without 'for', the preposition for is used before a duration term (for a day, etc.) to make it clear that this term is the duration of the mentioned action, and not something else; compare:

I'd worked hours before you started working.
I'd worked for hours before you started working.

You can see why the first sentence is confusing: "worked hours" or "hours before"? Not clear. But this confusion is cleared up by using for in the second sentence: "worked for hours".

Now what if we use other means to show what we mean by 'hours'? :

I'd worked HOURS ..[a little pause].. before you started working.

Now the confusion is resolved. It's clear what is meant by 'hours' and where it belongs to, even though no preposition is used.

There may be other factors affecting this issue, and as I said there are also fixed idioms like hold on a sec! which are out of the scope of my analysis, but I presume this is one of the reasons that justifies the omission of for.

So, when that person said "They've been going out a week", she put a stress on 'week' as a substitution for the preposition for.

One notable problem here is that in writing you can't put a stress on a word as easily as in speaking, so you will have to use modifying words like only, now, just, etc., so that the modifying word can do the preposition's job:

They've been going out only a week!

Regarding this matter, you can compare this Ngram with this one.

And finally, regarding the idiomatic expressions without for, look at this Ngram, and maybe this one.

This answer is hugely indebted to Goducks's answer.

  • 1
    The ELU question Omission of 'for' with various quantified time intervals: influence of verb might interest you, especially the paper (Acquisition of Preposition Deletion by Non-native Speakers of English) mentioned in the OP. I can't vouch for anything in the paper as I've not read it yet. – GoDucks Jan 13 '16 at 5:28
  • @MJF I'm a non-native speaker of English and there are matters for which I am not competent.I think that in spoken language the drop of for is more frequent, but I doubt that speakers of BrE or AmE follow one rule. There are "grey areas" that grammar can't describe with rules. The only thing one can say is "for" can be dropped. – rogermue Jan 13 '16 at 5:59
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I've no authority to back me up on this (it's such an obscure aspect of idiomatic usage I wouldn't be surprised if no-one has ever explicitly noted it before), but I think the key point is...

The construction [doing something] for [some timespan] normally only allows you to discard the preposition if in context the timespan is relatively/suprisingly long, not short.

Hence OP's usage sounds strange to most ears, because a week isn't long in the context of a romantic relationship. But dialectally, I'm pretty sure many Welsh speakers would be perfectly happy with, say,..

I'm watching TV a minute (after which I'll do whatever you're asking me to do)

...where most speakers would say for must be included. Note that OP's example becomes much more idiomatically acceptable as...

They've only been going out a week

(Where only overrides the default principle that omitting the preposition implies a "lengthy" timespan.)

  • This may be a dialect issue. In my dialect (AmE of the specifically New York City variety) the presence or absence of for has no relation to whether the timespan is surprising or not or long or short. – stangdon Jan 12 '16 at 18:52
  • @stangdon: I was gonna say Wait [for] a minute!, but then it dawned on me the idiomatically standard version of that one doesn't include a preposition! Not that I'm going down without a fight - in contexts where you might say Now, just hold on [for] a minute!, this is always being contrasted with a much shorter timespan (i.e. - not waiting at all :) – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '16 at 19:12
  • I think you have a point here in that if there's something surprising about the timespan, for can be omitted. But I don't think it's limited to long periods. I posted an answer, and I'd be delighted to hear your opinion about it. – Færd Jan 13 '16 at 5:18
  • I think different stress patterns are used when the period is surprisingly short and when its surprisingly long. For a long one: They've been going out MONTHS (in an almost up-going tone), and for a short period: They've been going out WEeks (first high, then lowering). You're a native speaker and I'm not. Inform me if I'm wrong. – Færd Jan 13 '16 at 5:23

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