Fun_People Archive
4 Dec
A Couple?

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon,  4 Dec 100 22:13:53 -0800
To: Fun_People
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Subject: A Couple?

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649  -=[ Fun_People ]=-

On Fri, 01 Dec 2000 Colin Maroney wrote:

>    for whatever reason, when i say "a couple," as in, "loan me a couple
>of bucks," i mean "a few" -- an unsepcified number, more than 1 but less
>than oh say 5.  but here in illinois, where i now live, people
>invariably take "a couple" to mean exactly 2.
>    now i realize that a romantic couple is exactly 2 people, but i just
>don't have the feeling about the language that the phrase "a couple"
>means exactly 2 in this context.  but, here, people invariably disagree.
>    what i want to know is,  am i some kind of freak who didn't
>assimilate the language correctly, or am i just butting up against an
>illinoising or midwestern usage?

and then a lot of people replied...

From: Helen Reid

I've just done a straw poll. Out of seven people (five of whom were brought
up in Glasgow, Scotland and two in the north of England), three were adamant
that a couple meant two (3/5 Glaswegians), three used it more loosely to
mean anything up to an handful (2/5 Glaswegians) and one wouldn't commit.
I use it loosely. Why say "a couple" when you could as easily say "two"
and have everyone know what you mean with no ambiguity? And "a couple" is
useful when you don't want to specify an exact number.

In our house, I always think my partner is being stingy if he gives me two
when I've asked for "a couple" - he replies that I only asked for two!



From: Jessica Perry Hekman

I learned to speak in Chicago and Boston. When I worked at a bakery in
SoCal about ten years ago, customers would frequently confuse me by asking
for "a couple" cookies, by which they meant exactly two. One customer asked
for "a few" cookies, by which he meant exactly three, but I think he was
an exception. It might be regional, or it might just not be a broad usage.



From: "Travis J.I. Corcoran"

I picked up a book, _Toolies_
at the Tufts book store in 1987 or so, that goes to great lengths to
translate colloquial quantitative terms into numbers, on two scales:  for
the general population, and for "toolies".

 From memory, the chart includes:

Term      General           Toolies
couple     2-5                  2.0
several    2-20                 3-5
hundreds   21+                  100-900
million    >30                  1x10^6

There is a companion chart for specification of precision.

Term      General           Toolies
about      * / 20               * / 2
almost     * / 10               * / 1.1
exactly   no translation        * / 1.0



From: John Aspinall

I was raised in the Scottish Lowlands, and later Southern Ontario,
A couple means precisely two, to me also.  I leave questions of
assimilation up the user.

O.t.o.h., it occurs to me that "loan me a couple of bucks" may not be a
generic example of the usage.  No-one minds being given or lent slightly
more money than they asked for.  Would you also describe a group of
three people as "a couple of people"?



Subject: re:a couple
From: "Elmer Smith"

I personally subscribe to Colin's meaning ("a couple" means roughly 2 to
5), but my wife claims it means exactly two.  Most, but not all, of my
friends back in high school and college had the same usage I do.  My current
circle of friends and acquaintences is roughly evenly divided.  I'm glad
I'm not the only one who runs into this!

I grew up in Cleveland Ohio (sort of the gateway to the Midwest), both of
my parents were from a small town near Wilkes-Barre, PA, and I am of
primarily Polish, Slovak, and Hungarian extraction, with a little bit of
English and Mohawk thrown in to make things interesting.  My wife grew up
in Rochester NY, and is of Sicilian extraction.

I don't think it's careless use of the language in my case, as I am
currently an application developer (Anybody who says Pascal, Fortan, Lotus
Script, and Java Script aren't languages with a well-defined grammar will
get a real argument from me!) and I'm forever correcting other peoples'
use of "who" to "whom".

Maybe we'll figure out what the divide is on this one?

Elmer Smith
Rochester, NY


Subject: Re: a couple
From: "Bryan O'Sullivan"

I had believed that the use of "a couple" as "exactly two" was a
peculiarity general to American usage, but perhaps it instead varies
by region.  As a data point, in Ireland and the UK, we use "a couple"
as "a few".



From: "Newman, Todd"

I was raised in New Jersey and use "a couple" to mean " a few."  Perhaps
it's a regional difference?


From: Joel B Levin

Yes.  I haven't checked an actual dictionary yet, and probably won't,
but I'll bet it's defined that way.

In foxhunting (the equestrian sport), btw, "couple" is the official
unit of measure for hounds ("the huntsman had twelve and a half couple
out today").



From: "Andrew A. Gill"

I was raised in a place (Erie, PA) that viewed couple as literally
meaning two, but idiomatically meaning ``a few.''  So if you asked
someone for a couple of X, you'd get two, but mot people would wait to
see if you meant more than that.  This is the way I always take it.

So it seems somewhat universal, or perhaps it's a less potent variety of
the midwest theory.  Or perhaps it's a Great Lakes thing?  Where in IL
are you, and whence dm?

I also call it ``pop,'' which appears to be a regional dialect of
northwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and southwest New York, or

To the holy war types, at least it's not ``Coke''


From: Bill Lambert

I think sometimes it means "at least two", or "not
many" depending on context.  For example, as in
"can I have a couple of  fries" or  "a couple of people
flunked math". That's the Boston born and bred
sense of it.

It also often means "two", strangely.


From: David Pease

Yes.  I was a similar freak until I determined that most people
that I talked to think "couple" means "two".

There are people who this isn't true for, but confining yourself
to "few" when you mean "more than two but not all that many" will
obviously fix this, since those people who take "couple" to mean
"more than one, less than many" won't be confused by your usage.




From: Karl Anderson

I have never questioned this since a classmate on the first grade
playground (in Illinois) told me that "a couple is two, a few is
three" during a dispute over how many turns I was promised on the

And anyway, besides couples of people, there's couplings and couplets.


From: Peter Langston

Sorry, you're some kind of freak.  I grew up in NYC and now live in the
Pacific Northwest, and in both places "a couple" means "two."  However, I
still might say "lend me a couple of bucks" when what I mean is "give me more
than the measly two bucks I'm asking for ... and don't expect them back!"


From: Patrick Tufts

>	for whatever reason, when i say "a couple," as in, "loan me a couple
>    of bucks," i mean "a few" -- an unsepcified number, more than 1 but less
>    than oh say 5.

Same here, and I'm somewhat sensitive to language (in the sense that
Rain Man is somewhat sensitive to Judge Wapner being on TV).



From: boyd

for what it's worth, i was raised on the east coast (new jersey, for
those who care), and for me, a couple means 'two' also. of course, i
usually take a 'few' to mean 'approximately three' as well. 'some' (as
in "give me some money") means 'more than three'. go figure. <g>



From: Aaron Sherber

I also grew up with couple = few. Our usage changed abruptly the first time
my father told his temperamental second wife that we'd be back (from
somewhere) in a couple of hours. When we showed up three or four hours
later, her anger convinced us qucker that couple = two than any grammatical
argument could.



From: "David M Chess"

I was born outside Chicago, but raised in suburban New York.  "A couple" is
two, and that seems pretty much the consensus among the people I talk with.
It's slightly weaker than "two", in that if it turns out there were really
three you weren't exactly *wrong*.  But if you ask for a couple of cups,
you'll probably get two.

"A few" is three, and of course "several" is seven.  *8)  But these are
much weaker correlations than "a couple".


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