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Couples Policy

June 22, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 22, 2016

Sometimes the simplest word or phrase can cause the biggest headache. Couple is one of those words.

You may have heard that the word couple must always be followed by the word of, but is that true? Is couple always followed by of?

The short answer is no. The medium-length answer is most of the time. The long answer takes up the majority of this article.

Couple is both a noun and a verb. It isn’t officially, however, an adjective. At least not according to many dictionaries. (Merriam-Webster Online does list couple as an adjective.) And yet we sometimes use couple as an adjective, which can cause problems.

We don’t have trouble using couple as a verb—Coupled with strong earnings, the new product line had Bill’s company sitting pretty.

We also don’t have trouble when we treat couple as a noun—The long-married couple was looking forward to retirement.

As a noun, couple, like pair, traditionally means two of something. And yet in reality, couple is also used as a substitute for few—He gave a few of his mom’s cookies to his girlfriend/he gave a couple of his mom’s cookies to his girlfriend; a few dogs ran down the street; a couple of dogs ran down the street.

And this introduces the major problem with the use of couple—we’ve started to use it as an adjective—a couple dogs ran down the street.

You’ll find plenty of people to tell you that you can never follow couple with a plural noun without including of between the two nouns. On the other hand, some will acknowledge that there are allowances. Another group will say that it’s okay to skip of after couple in informal contexts but that you should maintain the pairing of the words in formal writing. And still others say that word use is changing and we should accept the change and go with what people actually use.

What I want to do is give you an idea of when you should stick with couple of and when you can safely use couple without of.

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■  In both American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), use couple before words of degree (more, less).

A couple more women showed up at the station to complain about the man’s behavior.

The total had been a couple more than he’d expected.

■  In AmE, use couple most of the time before words of time and number. In this use, we’re definitely treating couple like an adjective. Couple without of is likely to be increasingly more common for these expressions, although couple of can usually be used for most of them.

The chef handed his assistant a couple dozen bent spoons.

The plane wouldn’t arrive for a couple hours. The plane wouldn’t arrive for a couple of hours.

She only had a couple zillion more cakes to bake before she could go home.

The cavalry arrived a couple minutes later. The cavalry arrive a couple of minutes later.

I needed a couple thousand dollars to pay the debt. I was a couple of thousand short.

Can you use couple without of in BrE for words of time and number? From what I understand, the practice isn’t widespread, so you may want to use couple of in nearly all cases. For Canadian and Australian audiences, I’d guess that omitting the of might be increasingly common for time and number references. I’m only guessing here, however. Perhaps those of you who write for Canadian or Australian audiences will share your knowledge.

■  In formal writing (school papers, nonfiction books, dissertations, business reports, journal articles) in both BrE and AmE, use couple of when a plural noun follows (except as noted above).

The lawyer introduced his client to a couple of meth dealers.

Because of contamination, a couple of experiments will need to be repeated.

Some U.S. newspapers, blogs, or magazines may be informal and allow the use of couple alone.

■  In dialogue for both AmE and BrE, use either couple or couple of when the noun couple comes before a plural noun depending on what the character would use. (Do the same for a character’s thoughts in first person and in third person with deep POV.) However, do note that couple alone, if used frequently, may cause readers to silently insert the of. So while a few uses of couple might sound fine to readers, multiple uses might sound jarring. Or even irritating.

Most characters who speak British English would probably use couple of in most instances, and yet a character who watches a lot of American TV or who reads a lot of American books might well use couple without of.

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Couple and couple of—just a word and a short phrase. But they can cause problems when they’re used incorrectly. The next time couple comes up in your writing or editing, be sure to give the word an extra bit of attention.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

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9 Responses to “Couples Policy”

  1. Timothy Gwyn says:

    I live somewhere near the middle of Canada. In speech, we say “Wanna get a couple o’ cokes?” I wouldn’t write it with the apostrophe, though; I would write of. I don’t think I know anyone who would say “couple cokes.”

  2. S.W. says:

    I’m from Australia and to not say ‘of’ sounds so unnatural. I find it very distracting when I read a book that omits the ‘of’. It just feels wring :)
    Also, as per your point …. Couple vs Few …… I’ve grown up with the understanding that ‘couple’ is two, and ‘few’ is more than two (generally 3)

    • S.W., so maybe dropping of really is just a U.S. thing. Do you even use the of before time and number words, as in the sentences I included in the reply to Timothy?

      And thanks so much for adding to the discussion. This is good information.

      • S.W. says:

        I would definitely include ‘of’ in both sentences you quoted for Timothy.
        It may be because you are describing a number of something, not a number something.
        A couple of chickens … not .. a couple chickens.
        A couple of moments … not … a couple moments.

  3. Goddebby says:

    Thanks for that post Editor. You’ve brought to my cognizance the use of “couple”.

  4. j. says:

    Thanks, one more tool in my editing check list.

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