This tip (yesterday’s) is curiously timed. My son Ben and I were shopping on Saturday for a Middle Eastern feast — falafel, Persian salad, and tabbouleh. I asked Ben to get a couple of cucumbers, and he asked how many. I said two, a couple. Ben pointed out that couple might mean “a few,” “several,” not necessarily two. I offered what I thought was a case-closing example: “When you say ‘They’re a nice-looking couple,’ how many people do you mean?”
But here comes Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day, one of two thus far for couple:
As a noun, ‘couple’ has traditionally denoted a pair. (As a verb, it always denotes the joining of two things.) But in some uses, the precise number is vague. Essentially, it’s equivalent to “a few” or “several.” In informal contexts this usage is quite common and unexceptionable — e.g.:So Ben has Bryan Garner in his corner. It’s several against one!
“Those most anxious should practice at least once in front of a couple of people to be comfortable with an audience.” Molly Williamson, “Unlocking the Power of Public Speaking,” Milwaukee J. Sentinel, 15 Sept. 2002, at L12.
“This slick, cozy shop, which underwent a makeover a couple of years back, is a hybrid of takeout and restaurant.” A.C. Stevens, “Why Cook Tonight?” Boston Herald, 15 Sept. 2002, Food §, at 65.
And then there’s a couple three, which I call an “Illinoism.”
Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009), offers a free Usage Tip of the Day. You can sign up at LawProse.org. Orange Crate Art is a Garner-friendly site (though I prefer to type out numbers up to ninety-nine).
All Bryan Garner posts
Need worked (An Illinoism)