A Couple of Things, and a Couple More



The word couple literally means “two,” but it is often used to mean “an indefinite small number.” So if you were to say, “I only have a couple of dollars,” you would probably not be called out if you really had three or four.

However, your friend the grammar stickler might take exception if you said you had “a couple dollars.” Although “a couple dollars” is common in everyday speech, traditionalists insist on “a couple of dollars.” And since a couple of dollars doesn’t sound stuffy or pretentious, why leave of out?

But things get tricky when couple is used with words and phrases of comparison, such as more, fewertoo many, too few. Many people would say a couple of more dollars, but in that construction the of is dropped: a couple more dollars and a couple too few dollars are correct. However, if we slightly revise those phrases, of must be put back:  a couple of dollars more and a couple of dollars too few are correct.

When the noun couple refers to two people, you often see it used as a singular: The couple was having dinner. But the more one writes, the more one discovers that with couple the plural verb should be used unless there is an excellent reason not to.

While it is true that The couple was having dinner is unobjectionable, what if we expand the sentence a bit. If the subject of a sentence starts out singular, it should remain singular. So if we wanted to say where the dinner took place, we would be forced to write The couple was having dinner in its home. That is atrocious, but so is The couple was having dinner in their home. Therefore, make it  The couple were having dinner in their home. And make couple plural whenever possible (which is most of the time). You’ll be in good company.

*****

We recently heard from a reader who objected to a sentence she found in one of our online quizzes:  We’ll hire the applicant whom we talked with. She urgently informed us that “you do not end a sentence with a preposition!!!!”

This “rule” is the Walking Dead of English-grammar superstitions—a festering pest that cannot be destroyed. We are scolded about it at least once a year, and without exception those who upbraid us offer no evidence to substantiate their claims. (That is because none exists.) So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at 9:03 am

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20 Comments on A Couple of Things, and a Couple More

20 responses to “A Couple of Things, and a Couple More”

  1. Chuck says:

    What about the phrase, we will couple the train cars together. Than it is used as a verb, and means a action. It does not mean two. Am I correct?

  2. Jared says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I was wondering about the extension of this concept to “group,” “team,” “family,” etc. In these cases I’m much more likely to use “its,” even if sounds a little awkward. “The team was practicing in its stadium,” or “The family was piling into its minivan.” Or would these be better as plurals as well?

    Also, I’ve noticed that Brits often take the approach of using a plural to refer to groups, even without a phrase of comparison. For instance, “The family are eating dinner,” “The group are against that idea,” or even with companies, “Morgan Stanley are keen to move forward.” I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this? I always try to avoid plurals and go with singular in these cases, but I thought that was American English versus British.

    Thanks again!

  3. Sara says:

    So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

    “Speak when someone speaks to you.”

    Ending a sentence with a preposition drives me crazy!

    • Nice try, but no soap. You had to rewrite the sentence.

      Our point was that in English, as with other Germanic languages, a preposition ending a sentence is the most natural thing in the world. What drives us crazy is the time wasted avoiding something that is perfectly acceptable. In this case, you have taken a clear, simple sentence that everyone has heard and seen many times, and unnecessarily replaced it with a clumsy paraphrase.

      • Dr. Jazz Normand says:

        “Speak when addressed.” No, it doesn’t have the alliteration. But it’s correct grammar. (And yes, it’s correct to begin a sentence with but or and.) However, you point out the complexities of English verbs that take prepositions, e.g. ‘to point out.’ Another is ‘to be up to’ as in “What are you up to?” English grammar is fun!

        • Your sentence is indeed “correct grammar,” but so was our sentence. Our point was that the preposition in Speak when you are spoken to cannot be relocated, and it is pointless to rewrite clear, grammatical sentences in service to some daft, discredited superstition.

  4. Steven says:

    Speak only after someone has spoken to you.

  5. Chris says:

    The “couple was” problem is an example of why the British English system of notional agreement (synesis) is better than the American English system of unnecessarily formal agreement. Sense should trump form.

  6. Mark says:

    Speak when you are spoken to. At the risk of proven wrong with your challange, I submit the sentence below, removing the ending preposition. Is this acceptable?

    When spoken to, you may speak.

    • Your sentence does not solve the problem. Those who believe the discredited rule about prepositions at the end of a sentence would still object, because the preposition (they say) must always be followed by its object. Your preposition is followed by a comma. We used that sentence to show that English is not meant to follow Latin rules. English is a Germanic language, and such languages commonly place prepositions after their objects, and at the end of sentences.

  7. David Teems says:

    The CMS (15th ed.) says, “Using COUPLE as an adjective is poor phrasing. Add OF (We watched a COUPLE OF movies). Hollywood particularly seems to have accepted the use of the word “couple,” without the preposition “of.” It is maddening to hear phrases like “a couple days” instead of “a couple of days,” and so on. It is even more hideous to see it in print. Shudder. When we speak the word “couple” as in “a couple hours” the preposition seems to be there, though it is not. It is an illusion. To say “cup coffee” has the same effect. You almost hear the preposition though, again, it is absent. The deception is aural.

  8. MK Harman says:

    Which is correct: a couple of more thoughts OR a couple more thoughts?

  9. Ramses IV says:

    Good devil! And I thought that the Portugese grammar was a nuts matter! Thanks for the savant clarifications. So it’s not wrong to say: I had a couple of days off to sort things out?

  10. Janice says:

    Is it a couples’ banquet or a couple’s banquet? I would hate to correct and be the one who needs correcting.

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