Dropping the “of” After “couple”

By Maeve Maddox

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This recent cry of despair from a reader has not fallen on deaf ears:

You’re the only people I know to complain to, so I’m complaining again: ‘Couple’ in spoken form, and recently in written form, with ‘a’ and ‘of’ elided, has become the equivalent of ‘two’.

The reader goes on to offer an “updated” version of the song “A Couple of Swells” from Easter Parade, sung by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland:

We’re couple swells
We stop at the best hotels. . .
We’re couple sports . . .

I feel your pain, dear Reader, but—like it or not—complaint is futile.

The Ngram Viewer of printed usage sees such phrases as “a couple tickets” and “a couple drinks” beginning a marked rise in 2000.

The entry for couple in Merriam-Webster online does not give any examples for dropping the of. The single example for “an indefinite small number” is “a couple of days ago.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has more to say.

Item 7b of Section II of couple as a noun gives examples of the use of couple used without an of.

1876 a couple pounds
1914 a couple other pitchmen
1925 a couple months
1934 a couple hundred
1976 a couple dozen people
2000 a couple days

Item 7c records the quasi-adjective “a couple more,” meaning “two more.” The usage is labeled “colloquial.

1934 a couple minutes more
1961 a couple more cops
1965 a couple more letters
1985 a couple more months

OED even has a separate entry for coupla with the meaning, “a couple of.” Labeled colloquial and “originally U.S.,” the three citations include one from British author Dorothy L. Sayers: “He’d had nothing to eat…for a coupla days.”

The last post I wrote about the dropped of with couple prompted a spirited discussion in the readers’ comments. One reader asked, “Why is it correct to say “a dozen eggs” when I need to add “of” to “a score of eggs”?

My only answer is, “because that is how we say it now.”

In 1362, William Langland wrote, “many score times.”
In 1583, Middleton wrote “for every score communicants.”
In 1616, Shakespeare included the of: “many score of miles.”
In 1768, Sterne left it out: “a score different plans.

In the 1800s, the of seems to have prevailed. In 1847, Thackeray wrote “a score of generals,” and in 1882, Stevenson wrote “a score of men.”

Usage changes. For those of us who shudder to hear “I bought a couple tickets,” all is not lost.

The Chicago Manual of Style is on our side:

couple. Using couple as an adjective has traditionally been regarded as nonstandard phrasing—though it is increasingly common as a casualism. Add of: we watched a couple of movies.

The examples given on the fraze.it site suggest that speakers who drop the of are still well in the minority, at least in written English. A search for “a couple” brought up 87,674 sentences. I sampled five pages of results. Of 42 sentences relevant to this discussion, only five dropped the of. Standard usage prevailed at 88%.

Related post: The Quasi-adjective Couple

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2 Responses to “Dropping the “of” After “couple””

  • Tim Slager

    A couple tickets
    A couple of tickets
    Either way, it’s two, innit?
    Two tickets. Fixed it.
    Save “couple” for couples, like Fred and Judy (or Ginger) or if you want to be vague (normally not recommended)

  • venqax

    I sympathize with the annoyance at this problem. I have noticed a similarly sloppy phenomenon with the literal devaluation of “worth”. E.g. commercials that try to sell you, “10 thousand dollars of insurance”. Can I have 2 dollars of coffee to drink while I do it? Since when are dollars the unit of measure for anything but money? I might b e interested in 10 1housand dollars worth of insurance. Well, probably not, but you get the picture.

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