Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

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.:

“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.
So Ben has Bryan Garner in his corner. It’s several against one!

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 Orange Crate Art is a Garner-friendly site (though I prefer to type out numbers up to ninety-nine).

Related posts
All Bryan Garner posts
Need worked (An Illinoism)

comments: 9

Geo. said...

Hello. Ran across your site by clicking "Frank O'Hara" --favorite poet-- at my profile page. Had to contribute to this post on usage. In railroad parlance, one can couple any number of cars together. Perhaps coupled cars become one thing, to which other coupled cars can be coupled. I could go on but wouldn't sure of anything any more. Compliments on your excellent blog.

Daughter Number Three said...

I grew up in central New York (south of the Finger Lakes) and say "a couple three." Hmm.

Michael Leddy said...

George, thanks for your appreciative words. That’s a nice reminder of the complexities of couple. When I was a student in Allston, Massachusetts, living near a train yard, I used to hear the cars coupling all through the night.

Daughter Number Three, I did some quick searches for “a couple three” with Google Books and found nothing about its origins. I wonder how widely used this expression is. If I find any info, I’ll post it.

plntxt said...

@Daughter Number Three, In CNY East of the Finger Lakes the correct usage is "a couple two three" which really means any number above 2 but less than 10 or thereabouts. :)

Elaine Fine said...

I just realized that "a couple three" might actually be a corruption of "two or three."

Matt Thomas said...

For me, "couple" has always indicated two, and "few" has always indicated three or more. Such usage also has the virtue of being more elegant than some of the above examples.

Elaine said...

I vote with you, MLeddy; 'a couple' is always TWO. A FEW or SEVERAL is three, or perhaps four or five, but if I get to six, it's 'half a dozen.' I've used 'a couple three,' kind of in fun--much like putting 'ain't' in a sentence. In closing, an additional note on 'conditional usage'--I only use 'a couple', 'few,' etc., if I don't much care how many; otherwise I'm pretty precise. Why? Because DHubby does the grocery shopping and failures of exactitude are invitations to disaster.

Michael Leddy said...

I think that in contexts of quantity (like the produce section), couple means (or should mean) “two.” But if someone says “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes,” no one would take that as meaning “two minutes,” would they?

plntxt said...

@Matt Thomas Surely we can be descriptive rather than prescriptive.