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A grammatical analysis of the title for the movie "12 Years A Slave" has baffled me. Particularly the fact that possibly some kind of inversion (A Slave for 12 Years12 Years A Slave) has taken place.

What's the role of "A Slave" in this phrase?

Some other examples:

I know the meaning of those nineteen years a slave of the law! – Jean Valjean

All things considered, then, it came as no great surprise when Mrs. LaPointe, two years a widow, stepped out to retrieve her newspaper one morning and spotted a dead doe in the middle of Shady Dell Lane. – “Bonny Oaks,” Michael Knight, The Saturday Evening Post, July, 2012

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  • You have it exactly correct, but I have no idea what to call that grammatical construct, so I'm not going to write an answer. Another example I can think of, though, is the song 'Three Times a Lady'. Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:10
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because there's no reason to suppose movie titles should be "sentences", so it's pointless trying to analyse their "syntax" from that perspective . Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:22
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    I think you can understand it by making it a predicative complement in a larger sentence: I was twelve years a slave.
    – user230
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:33
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    @Ranthony: I did. If you had also done so, you would have found that most of the examples that were good structural matches were book titles, as I stated. "50 years a doctor", "forty years a gambler", "thirty years a slave", "forty years a fur trader", "forty years a chief"... etc, etc..
    – JavaLatte
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 18:06
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    Please don't vote to close this question. It asks about an important and subtle aspect of English grammar. Movie titles do have syntax (see "A Star Is Born" explained here), grammar is not limited to full sentences, and this particular grammatical construction shows up in ordinary sentences, too.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 3:42

2 Answers 2

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Three points have been raised about this text:

  • it's not a complete sentence
  • the word order seems unusual
  • there appears to be two nouns but no prepositions.

The fact that it's not a complete sentence is irrelevant: this is normal for titles of films and books. There are many examples of complete sentences that use the same construction, and the OP has added now added two of them to his question.

The film is from an autobiographical book, so I think we can reasonably analyse the title as if it were a predicate complement of I was.

I was twelve years a slave.

It seems to me that a slave would also make sense as a predicate complement on its own:

I was a slave.

so the unusual part is not "a slave" but "twelve years".

Regarding the word order, some people have pointed out the similarity to sentences like "twice a winner", rather than "a winner twice". Note that twice is an adverb, and adverb positioning can be flexible. Yes, there are 'rules', but these rules are really guidelines, and they change over time and with regional dialects.

The final point is about the absence of prepositions. There are many examples of sentences that concern time periods and do not have prepositions, some of which show this inversion. As the book was published in 1853, I have picked some examples from the 19th century, though it is possible to find examples back to the 16th century that show the absence of preposition and the inversion.

When I met Wolseley first, in 1877, he had been but twenty-one years a soldier

[He was] two weeks an invalid (1882)

He was out of the prison about ten months (1881)

[She is] now a widow, and in the house nearly five years with her oldest child (1882)

I am wondering whether these time intervals are treated as adverbs of time duration, like long. This would explain the absence of preposition and also the flexibility in positioning:

She did not long remain a widow (1824)

[I] began to think I should not be a soldier long (1853)

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I think this is , that is, shortened non-standard language used mainly for titles of newspaper articles - but apparently it fits book and movie titles as well. I can easily imagine a magazine title like "Twelve years a slave: a shocking report".

Another possible explanation is dialect: the hero/protagonist is a 19th-century African American and has lived among slaves for a long time, so although the syntax that he uses seems substandard to us, it might have been common for these times and places.

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  • Considering the usage, I don't think it's fair to call it "headlinese"... Your secondary is much more likely than that.
    – Catija
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 21:22
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    Interesting guesses, but neither sounds reasonable to me. This has a poetic ring to it, more than headline-like or dialectal.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 1:20
  • It couldn't be headlinese. It just couldn't. They haven't picked fights with prepositions.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 6:33
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    If you think it's not headlinese, please identify the verb in this "sentence". Commented May 20, 2016 at 8:19
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    @laugh Many book and movie titles don't have verbs but aren't in headlinese. For example, The Hustler, Star Wars. There are even ordinary spoken sentences that lack a verb, like "The more, the merrier" and "Off with his head!"
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 9:42

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