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When a Couple Is Not a Few

Updated on December 28, 2009

The First Error

There are some issues of usage I find myself mentally correcting in the midst of conversation. I think content is more important than form: politeness and decency preferable to grammatical perfection. However, mental correction is always permitted. Whether only in Canada or the English world over, I can't be sure, but here at least many misuse 'couple' to mean 'few'.

For instance, someone might say,
"It usually snows a couple of times each December."
The word 'couple' here is intended with the vagueness of 'few.' The misunderstanding is that 'couple' is a vague term, referring to an anomalous collection of a small number. In actuality, of course, that number is a fixed small number: two only. The speaker of the above sentence couldn't be saying it snows only twice each December, but that is what the sentence, strictly speaking, would express.

The Second Error

Even knowing 'couple' refers to exactly two objects does not prevent error. Words don't have meanings, they have usages. Dictionaries do not tell what a word should mean, but how a word is used in a sentence. We do not think in words, but in ideas; and ideas are captured not by words, but by sentences. Dictionaries are guides to sentence construction. When two words appear that seem to be used the same way, usually there is a connotative distinction to be drawn. 'Couple' is not ideally used wherever 'two' may be used. The nuance it captures in general usage is important for expressing our ideas in sentences. 'Couple' is distinguished from 'two' by the implication of a connection between the two objects to which it refers.

For instance,
"Only a couple of people know the secret," could be rendered, "Only two people know the secret." Perhaps the aesthetic value of a few extra syllables guides the word choice here, but were that not the case, what might be the significance? 'Couple' would normally be referring to an actual couple. A couple of people who know the secret would be people who are related to one another, a romantic couple or coupled by virtue of the secret. To say 'two people know the secret' would not imply this connection. They would be people with no relationship to one another, or at least not for the purpose of the discussion.

A Couple of Additional Points

Similarly, 'a pair' also refers to two objects. It also refers to two objects in a relationship. One speaks of a pair of shoes or a pair of gloves, but not a couple of gloves or just two gloves. The connotation of 'pair' is one of necessity. The two is defined by their being two and in this sense the duality is a necessity. For instance, a 'pair of twins' is so called because their very nature as twins depends upon the duality. One could well refer to them as a couple of siblings, but when referring to them as twins, they are not merely a couple, but a pair; they together form the classification entity that is the twinship.

This necessity is not contained in the notion of a couple. The couple's couplehood is contingent, a property that might just as well have not been acquired or have been acquired with different entities. Gloves are always made in pairs and are necessarily paired, but married couples could just as well have never met.

So...

Ultimately, it little matters in the grand scheme of things whether you say 'pair', 'couple', or 'two'. Usually the casual listener can figure out whether 'few' is intended instead of 'couple,' or whether 'couple' is being used loosely. Concerns from nuance, elegance, aesthetics, or even the comic value of the word choice all come into play. However, awareness of the connotative distinctions enables one to use or misuse them more effectively.

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    • Lightpainting profile image

      Lightpainting 6 years ago from London, UK

      Loved the article!

    • profile image

      Rodrigo 7 years ago

      I loved your essay, Arthur. I work with onscreen translation (English to Portuguese) and once in a while I bump into this dilemma: couple or a few? For some reason I wanted to square things out today, but I found it quite hard to get to a conclusion. Even the Oxford says: “Couple - informal an indefinite small number.”

      In my case, when I have to translate, the hard part is to identify what the person means. Sometimes I have the sense that they are mistakenly using “couple” to say “a few”, but, as you explained, I have to stick with two to not be wrong. This is an odd feeling of mine.

      Thanks,

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 7 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      Pigeons no problem -- I'm just glad cows don't fly!

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 7 years ago

      Hey Neil,

      haha Thanks for dropping by. Glad you and Shirley appreciated my explanation. May pigeons not defecate on your car.

      Cheers!

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 7 years ago

      Wow, all these sudden visits to this ancient hub of mine. Thanks for the warm welcome from my old friends, Nellieanna and saddlerider. I have been busy trying to find a job since I've dropped out of my M.A. degree. I wish I could just sit around writing articles all day. I'll try drop in more frequently.

      Cheers!

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 7 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      I did done get grayed 12, but I aren't that good at speeling nor gandmer.... thus I surely appreciated your explanation. I hope you have a pair of great days in a row with a couple of smiles from people you never met before.

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 7 years ago

      Arthur nice to see you come back to us for a couple or two or three more visits. Where the heck have you been? Studying a dictionary from front to back in some monastery in Montreal?:0))

      I hope that many not few will pick up where you left off writing a few weeks or has it been a month now? Hubbers have been wondering where you ran off to.

      Welcome back my funny smart, intelligent activist friend. Keep us all coming back for more than a few times please.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 7 years ago from TEXAS

      Hugs, Arthur!

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 8 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      LOL.

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Dear Ben "The Sanctimonious" Zoltak,

      Nah just teasing. Your tone was just fine. We got good communication going on here. :D

      I can't believe any website would turn down your writing. You're very good. Well, their loss. Unless it's a paying source, in which case it's probably your loss too. hehe Good luck in the future!

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 8 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Hey man I hope my tone didn't come off sanctimonious or stuffy! Haha, just want to say that one more time (to clarify any perceived sarcasm on my part) I really enjoyed your hub. I like the way you lay out explanations in a matter-of-fact way and with a subtle sense of humor. I've been feeling a little grammatically inferior lately, as having had a few of my articles for a different website get turned down for aforementioned usage entanglements!

      I'm also a total diction geek so I really enjoyed your usage vs. meaning encapsulation, that's the kind of stuff I go for in some of my writing. I dig it mon frere.

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Howdy Ben!

      While these clarifications on meaning interest me just because I like words, the overall message I try to convey, particularly in the final paragraph, is that it doesn't really matter if you use the right grammar as long as everyone understandizes you. I really only wrote this article out of curiositism.

      Anyway! Yeah, y'know what? Nobody has ever come away from a Grammar Nazi pleased to have made contact. If Jesus had been a stickler for grammar, there'd be no Christianity today. You can quote me on that. So while I think I have above average grammar, I have below average tolerance for "linguistic authoritarianism." The point is just to understand what everyone's saying. Like, totally, dude!

      Cheers!

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 8 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Bravo AW, I have a couple of pairs of observations to offer, or do I? As someone whose grammar, usage and syntax lies somewhere in the netherworld betwixt sub-par and mediocre let me just express the dualistic nature of my abhorrence for all things grammarian: while at the same time I admire those who can manipulate linguistic authoritarianism well. Along those lines, I despise my own and others' use of overabundant isms and anyone elses' abuse of ize's, as in "utilize" being substituted for use, or "colloquialisms" gratuitously substituted for colloquial. There I've said it, now I can get back to my usual clumsy verb usage. Thanks again, I will sincerely be looking for more of these grammatical lessons, even now as I cower wondering what types of usage faults I've created!

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Awesome! Thanks for commenting.

    • cameciob profile image

      cameciob 8 years ago

      Arthur, this is good information for me. I'll be more carefull in using this words. I like the picture.

    • Arthur Windermere profile image
      Author

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      J Rosewater - Thanks! Very generous of you to say so. Yes, lots of great poetry and comedy is based on cleverly 'misusing' words.

      Dame Scribe - I'll be honest: your sentence has confused me a little. But I'm happy to have it all the same. Thanks!

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 8 years ago from Canada

      It is strange and silly other days when seeing a play on word useage indeed,lol. Great Hub! :)

    • J  Rosewater profile image

      J Rosewater 8 years ago from Australia

      Arthur, there are some excellent notions in this essay. A touch too lofty for the common or garden reader in this audience, the majority (but not all) of whom would take it at surface value. I am in love with the idea of being able 'to misuse' things more effectively. Bravo!

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