The Quasi-adjective “Couple”

By Maeve Maddox

Many English speakers cringe to hear the following construction:

Jack has a couple tickets for the play.

Counting myself among the cringers, I prefer the standard construction:

Jack has a couple of tickets for the play.

I prefer the latter usage because I can’t accept couple as an adjective describing “tickets.” To me the dropped “of” comes across as slovenly speech.

As a noun couple means “a union of two.” It had its origin as a hunting term for a leash for holding two hounds together. In modern usage it often means “a man and woman united by love or marriage.” Well, now it can also mean “a man and man” or “a woman and a woman” etc.

As a verb couple means “to tie or fasten together in pairs,” or “to join or connect in any way.”

The OED offers two main entries for couple, one as noun and one as a verb. The adjectival use is noted under the noun entry:

quasi-adj. a couple more (..), two more (colloq.).

All of the OED examples given for this colloquial use of couple are used with the word more:

Just you hang on for a couple minutes more

a couple more cops to hold them at a decent distance

I wonder if I could dictate a couple more letters

It’s going to be a couple more months..before we decide what to do.

The dropping of the “of” in expressions in which couple is followed by a word other than “more” is described as a “U.S. colloquialism.” The spelling coupla is also documented and given an entry as a U.S. colloquial form of “couple of.” One of the examples is from the writing of English writer Dorothy Sayers:

1934 Nine Tailors III. II. 276 He’d had nothing to eat..for a coupla days.

It seems to me that the spelling coupla has a certain merit. At least it sounds like an adjective, whereas “a couple tickets” just sounds incorrect.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged treats couple as a genuine adjective meaning “two” and gives the examples a couple more oaths and a couple nights ago.

If “couple” in these examples means “two,” I wonder why the article “a” would be necessary: “a two more oaths”; “a two nights ago.”

No amount of carping will alter the fact that the “a couple tickets” construction is here to stay, but you won’t catch me using it.

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15 Responses to “The Quasi-adjective “Couple””

  • Kriz

    I second that the usage “a couple of” sounds more legitimate than its substandard (perhaps the word “slovenly” is flaming to some?).

    But I suspect “a couple” as a phrasal quantifier sounds quite natural to some because it works just as well as “a few”.

    So in that case, “couple” is not exactly an adjective, but a determiner, or part of a phrasal quantifier.

    My another speculation is that the last syllable of “couple” sounds like “of”, and so the two sounds kind of fused in quick speech, causing the dropping of “of”.

    Just some thoughts from a linguistic point of view.

  • Dan

    This use of “couple” is an Americanism and I believe falls under standard usage over there. They would similarly cringe at “couple of”.

  • Cecily

    It’s not (yet) widespread in Britain. In fact I think I’ve only come across it from Americans. It has similarities with “one hundred twenty” (AmE) and “one hundred and twenty” (BrE).

    “A couple more…” is fine, but “a couple minutes more” sounds just as wrong to me as omitting “of” in the other examples.

  • Rikke

    “If “couple” in these examples means “two,” I wonder why the article “a” would be necessary: “a two more oaths”; “a two nights ago.” ”

    Substitute couple with few – a few nights ago – in the sense “some”. Hence the need for an article. Does “couple” when used in this way actually mean “two”? Or is the meaning closer to “a few”? Ok, a couple of tickets might mean just that, two, but saying about a drunk person “I think he’s had a couple of beers” doesn’t seem to mean two beers.

    Omitting the “of” seems sloppy to me as well.

  • PreciseEdit

    Perhaps “two” is not an accurate synonym for the adjective “couple.” Perhaps “pair of” would be better, with the “of” included in the definition. Perhaps.

    You will catch me using “couple” as an adjective in speech, though not in formal writing. Certainly, the use of “couple” as an adjective is problematic. Following the doctor-heal-thyself principle, I may stop.

    On the other hand, in a DWT comment I posted on 2/5/2009 (post: Usage that Provokes “Blackboard Moments”), I related the following scenario:

    I stand at the counter in the ice cream shop and say, “I would like a couple scoops of chocolate, please.”
    “Sure,” is the common reply. “How many would you like?”

    In this scenario, however, the addition of the extra “of” probably wouldn’t make a difference in understanding.

    Fun topic, Maeve.

  • tony Hearn

    That’s distressing. I haven’t heard ‘couple’ as an adjective here in England yet (other than ‘a couple more’). I’ll load my blunderbuss to repel boarders.

  • Glynis

    I agree with you in most cases about putting in the word “of”. However, when it’s part of dialog or a poem, it depends.

  • Kriz

    I second that the usage “a couple of” sounds more legitimate than its “a couple”.

    But I suspect “a couple” as a phrasal quantifier sounds quite natural to some because it works just as well as “a few”, without “of”.

    So in that case, “couple” is not exactly an adjective, but a determiner, or part of a phrasal quantifier.

    My another speculation is that the last syllable of “couple” sounds like “of”, and so the two sounds kind of fused in quick speech, causing the dropping of “of”.

    Just some thoughts from a linguistic point of view.

  • Kriz

    I second that the usage “a couple of” sounds more legitimate than its “a couple”.

    But I suspect “a couple” as a phrasal quantifier sounds quite natural to some because it works just as well as “a few”, without “of”.

  • Peter

    Dialogue is one thing: if the speaker actually talks like that, you should write it that way, of course. A poem is quite another: poems should use real language.

  • Evelyn

    You should see what has been done to the King’s English over here! Slovenly is such an elegant word to describe this issue. Let me help. It is a messy, lazy way to write.

    It’s one thing in casual speech when talking to your friends, i.e. “Gimme couple minutes.” But, in anything written it is nothing less than lazy and sloppy.

    I do like that word though — slovenly. Hmmm…

  • Kathryn

    A poem is quite another: poems should use real language

    “Glory be to God for dappled things / For skies of couple color as a brindled cow;”

    Yup. Real language.

  • Paul Russell

    Just when I thought I had this figured (oops, bad pun) I started to think of other words for numbers.

    Why is it correct to say “a dozen eggs” when I need to add “of” to “a score of eggs” or “a gross of eggs”?

    I’m confused.

    –paul

  • Cecily

    @Paul: Good question, and I don’t know the answer, but it’s even odder than you point out, because “score” changes according to whether it’s singular or not, but the others don’t:

    A dozen eggs. Two dozen eggs.
    A score of eggs. Two score eggs.
    A gross of eggs. Two gross of eggs.

  • GilesB

    Thank you for this.

    As a Brit living in the States this grates on my nerves every time I hear it. To me it just sounds lazy. Merriam Webster dates it only to 1924. Sinclair Lewis has George Babbitt say “a couple sentences”. Its use does seem to be increasing although it’s still rated as less formal or informal speech.

    Well, until everyone starts saying “a pair socks” or “a brace pheasant”, which are probably coming, I shall stick to “a couple of”. If I drop the “of” you’ll probably hear me grinding my teeth.

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