A Couple of Notes About “Couple”

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Couple, from the Latin word copula, meaning “bond” (yes, the term is also the origin of copulate, which is synonymous with a sense of the verb couple), has some relationship issues, so careful writers should be aware of the word’s reputation and note its proper formal usage.

Couple, as a collective noun, can be associated with a singular verb or a plural one, depending on context. But unlike other words in that class, it’s more likely to use a plural verb: “The couple is celebrating its fiftieth wedding anniversary” is just awkward, because the impersonal pronoun implies that the enduring union does not involve human beings.

But “The couple are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary” strikes many readers, even those who, like me, advocate the singular they, as clumsy. So, refer to the couple as “the two” or even “they.”

Employing couple as an adjective (“Can I borrow a couple dollars?”) is common in speech but not appropriate in writing; the proper form is to treat the word as a noun followed by the preposition of preceding another noun (“Can I borrow a couple of dollars?”) When quoting a speaker in writing, silent correction — interpolating of in the record of a person’s idiomatic speech without brackets or similarly calling attention to the change — is advisable.

An exception to the “couple of dollars” preference is when the noun is a numerical reference (“I bet a couple of hundred dollars on the game”); though this is the preferred form, omission of of in this usage is still common and not considered incorrect.

However, of should remain absent from such statements as “I’ll buy a couple more batteries.”

The noun couple is also used informally to refer to more than two people. The verb form lags in generally referring to two people or things, as in connecting of train cars, though this action may repeat sequentially.

The form coupling can be a verb, an adjective, and a noun. Note, too, that “coupled with” takes a singular verb: “That incident, coupled with his behavior yesterday, is a clear sign of his instability.”

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10 thoughts on “A Couple of Notes About “Couple””

  1. Your remarks on the omission of the word ‘of’ after ‘couple’ strike my British ear as odd. Over here ‘of’ is almost never omitted after ‘couple’, even in casual speech, though it might well be reduced to ‘coupla’.

    I take decided issue with your statement that’ coupled with’ always takes a singular verb. What’s wrong or unidiomatic about ‘His recent transgressions, coupled with his misdemeanour last year, are likely to lead to his dismissal’? The number of the verb is determined by its subject. Qualifiers are irrelevant.

  2. I double-checked this one only because I sometimes tend to remove extraneous uses of of in my writing (He fell off [of] the mattress), including when I use couple as an adjective (editing as though it were the word two). I may need to rethink that a bit.

    The usage note in Merriam-Webster’s says the lack of of before a plural noun “is an Americanism, common in speech and in writing that is not meant to be formal or elevated.” So depending on the audience and the author’s intent, there could be a mindful omission of of in particular circumstances.

    Could you perhaps present a clearer example of your final statement that coupled with takes a singular verb? In the current example, is refers to the subject That incident. If the subject were plural, the verb would correspond: Those incidents, coupled with his behavior yesterday, are clear signs of his instability.

  3. Does this apply to family too? I find the use of the singular form the better usage.

    Couple of hundred – for the bet reference above is the better way to say and write it. Can’t see how otherwise is correct.

  4. I am in total agreement with Linda’s comment above. Seeing “of” left out of book after book has been driving me crazy. Such errors pull me away from the story. I wish today’s editors were more aware of how these problems affect their readers.

    Now, if we could just teach Nicholas Sparks and his editors how to use the word “take” instead of “bring” in every instance, I would be a happy reader.

  5. Rosanne:

    Thanks for the recognition! But when you engrave the trophy, it should read “Daniel Scocco’s Daily Writing Tips” — Daniel’s the publisher, and I am currently the primary contributor.

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