The other night, I came across the following passage in the book I was reading:

Marius is a junior officer, but he has been at sea for years and seen hundreds of ports. He has spent two weeks in a force 11 storm in the Bering Sea, watching his ship roll to a degree that sent all objects flying. He wasn’t seasick.

For how many years has Marius been at sea?

In this case, as in almost all cases involving the word “years” without a number appended, it’s clear that we’re talking about a long time. The precise number is immaterial; the point is that Marius is a veteran of the ocean. He’s seen hundreds of ports. His stomach remains still in the face of frightful weather.

But how many years do we mean when we say “years”? Is there a lower limit? Should it be taken literally—meaning only more than one year—or is there a level of certain level of experience implied? If you started playing tenor saxophone in July 2013, today you’re likely an intermediate-level player. Can you say, without misleading, that you’ve been playing for years?

How many years is years?

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