Couple without of

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Scott K. Johnson, "The Scablands: A scarred landscape as strange as fiction", ars technica 10/12/2014:

In 1922, Bretz tried to bring a group of students to the Cascades, but they were unable to make the last leg of the trip. Instead, they used their remaining time to poke around the Scablands near Spokane. The experience hooked him, and Bretz would return every year to further his research.  

In the first couple summers, Bretz and his students mapped an impressive amount of territory, carefully surveying elevations and making observations of the many strange landforms they discovered. They made their way through a number of the dry valleys locally known as "coulees." While these were plainly products of erosion, there were no streams to be seen. The surrounding region is composed of soft, rolling hills of silty soil, but the rocky coulees had been scraped clean of their sedimentary mantle.

Comment by marsiglio:

Nice article, but I see you have caught the "couple" bug. That nagging infection seems to be spreading rapidly. "Couple summers"? Couple chickens … chickens coupling … is there some advantage to saving an "of"? Just because one can say "two summers" doesn't mean that "couple summers" either makes sense or sounds good. Fight off this nasty bug and use that "of"!

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage:

[A] couple without of seems to have begun being used like a few and a dozen in the 1920s. Our earliest evidence is from that careful listener to American speech, Sinclair Lewis. […]

A couple without of is firmly established in American speech and in general writing (though not the more elevated varieties) when it is used directly before a plural noun or a number word. Before more, a couple is used without of in both British and American English and in this context is often preferred even by American commentators.

In the COCA corpus, "couple of [NN2]" is overall about 6 times more common than "couple NN2", but this has changed from a factor of 10.5 in 1990-1994 to a factor of 4.6 in 2005-2009, suggesting that marsiglio and his ilk are failing to hold back the tide:

"couple NN2":
"couple of NN2":

A search in COHA antedates Sinclair Lewis by 80 years or so — Charles F. Briggs, The Adventures of Harry Franco, 1839:

"Is that all you are going to call for?" asked the stranger, who had kept his eyes steadily fixed upon me all the time I was eating the baked beans. "I could eat something more," I replied. "Then why don't you call for a couple pieces of pie, and a couple glasses of beer?" said the stranger.

I bet that this usage has been around in American speech (and maybe some UK dialects) for a long time, and some commenters will no doubt be able to antedate Briggs.

[h/t Rod Johnson]

 



46 Comments

  1. Paul said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    "in the 1020s" — more likely in the "1920s"

    [(myl) Scribal error — fixed now.]

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    The acceptability of "a couple NPs" shows a fair bit of regional variation. I believe it's pretty common in the North Midland region all the way to western NJ. But when you get to the metropolitan New York region, "a couple of…" takes over, usually reduced to "a coupla…" [ə kʌpələ], esp. before a consonant.

    Of course, even in the Midland dialects where "of" can be omitted, there are some constraints. For instance, if the phrase is followed by a personal pronoun or by a Det + NP sequence, then "of" (or the reduced form [ə]) is obligatory:

    a couple of us/you/them/mine/ours/yours/his/hers/theirs
    a couple of the/these/those/my/our/your/his/her/their people

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    Here's an 1830 example from a British book, with no apparent American ties: http://books.google.ca/books?id=zrYEAAAAYAAJ&dq=%22a%20couple%20days%22&pg=PA229#v=onepage&q=%22a%20couple%20days%22&f=false

  4. Vance Koven said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    My experience suggests that in the US this may be something of a regionalism. People I know from western Pennsylvania and Ohio drop the "of" between "couple" and a noun much more often than others (with my Northeastern upbringing I never encountered it natively). It seems to be linked to the zone that drops "to be" between "need" and a past participle ("the clothes need washed").

  5. Ben Yagoda said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Couple without of grates on me, but even I find it hard to avoid when "couple" is followed by "more."

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Here is "a couple days" from 1789.

    Vance Koven: I'm from suburban Cleveland, and I say "a couple" without "of" all the time, but "needs washed" is alien to me. (My Pittsburgh relatives sometimes mentioned it as a dialect expression that they sometimes heard but wouldn't say.)

    Ben Yagoda: For you "of" includers, "a couple" has the same syntax as "a few", right?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    No, wait, for me "a couple" has the same syntax as "a few".

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    Well it's not just 'hard to avoid' in that position, it's obligatory in modern standard English when followed directly by a nominal.

    Can I have a couple more of beers? Surely not.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    My above comment was @ Ben Yagoda

    @ Jerry Friedman –

    A few, according to CGEL (p392), can be modified internally by very, good and fair, and externally by quite.

    Presumably a very couple is nonsense, but could you guys say a good/fair couple chances? or That was quite a couple days?

  10. David B said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    Wait—some of you can have an of between couple and more?? What does that sound like? Seriously, i want to see an example sentence.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

    @ David B –

    I'm pretty sure everyone means after the more. As in a couple more of the blue ones.

  12. Vance Koven said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    Jerry Friedman: this suggests that the "couple" without "of" might be a translation from a German origin. Ein Paar, which literally means a pair, hence a couple, colloquially means a few, and does not come with a preposition between it and the noun that follows. That could also explain (if true) the association with Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

    A couple without of sounds normal to me (Edinburgh).

  14. Ben Yagoda said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

    For me, "a couple" has same syntax as "a pair."

  15. Ben Yagoda said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

    "I'd like a couple of additional/extra beers" sounds okay," "I'd like a couple of more beers" less so, even though it means the same, maybe because "more" is used in so many different ways, including as an adverb.

  16. mae said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    Another variation I've heard is "a couple three." From Urban Dictionary:

    "a couple three"
    "originating in southeast Michigan in the 1960's, the term means a uncertain quantity, i.e. It may be two (but rarely is), it could be three but is usually more, but is seldom as much as 'quite a few'".
    "I told her a couple three times to get down off the bar or put her panties back on before they throw us out."

    For some reason Urban dictionary doesn't use capital letters.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    David B: "The Carolina Panthers will be without running back DeAngelo Williams for at least a couple of more weeks, coach Ron Rivera said on Monday." From ESPN. Of course this could be misprescriptivism, but I feel sure I've heard "a couple of more" in prescription-free conversation.

    Vance Koven: German (and Yiddish?), or the influence of "a few".

    Pflaumbaum: Although I've been known to use "a couple" for more than two, modifying it doesn't make sense to me. (I might use an "of" in "That was quite a couple of days!" meaning "What an extraordinary two-day period!") So maybe the syntax is different. I meant, but didn't say, that I use "of" in the same places with "a couple" as with "a few". With a couple-three exceptions.

  18. Chris Kern said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:04 pm

    (NSoE born and raised near Chicago)

    I hardly say "couple of", for me the word is "couplea" (or "cupla"). I have no problem with "a coupla more beers" even though I "a couple of more beers" sounds odd.

    I do say "couple more", though.

    I think that "couple" and "couplea" both have the same syntax for me but I'm not sure.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

    Sorry, my ESPN quotation should have read "The Carolina Panthers will be without running back DeAngelo Williams for at least a 'couple of more weeks,' coach Ron Rivera said on Monday." The coach apparently used the phrase. (Wikipedia says he's from California but has spent a considerable part of his adult life in Chicago.)

  20. cameron said,

    October 19, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    "a couple three", which is mentioned above, is very common in Pennsylvania. "three", in this context, is often pronounced /tree/.

  21. Keith said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:21 am

    For me, "couple", "few", "many", "some", etc. sometimes need to be followed by "of", sometimes do not.
    Compare the following examples.
    "A couple of us went out" v. "A few of us went out" v. "Some of us went out".
    "A couple more times" v. "A few more times" v. "Some more times"

    K.

  22. Alan Palmer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 4:07 am

    I am British and the 'of' almost always appears. However, 'a couple more beers' sounds OK, although I'd expect to hear 'a couple of beers' normally.

  23. RP said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 4:38 am

    For "of"-includers (like me), "a couple" follows the same pattern as "a lot".

    I would say "a couple of things", but "a couple more things", " a couple fewer/less". Likewise, I would say "a lot of things", but "a lot more things", "a lot fewer/less".

  24. Zizoz said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    I'm in North Carolina* and had no idea "couple" without "of" was controversial before this post.

    "A good/fair couple chances" and "quite a couple days" are to me as meaningless as "a very couple Xs".

    I don't have "needs washed" or "a couple three".

    *I was born in Montreal to British Columbian parents, and we moved to Pittsburgh when I was two and then NC a year later, if that all is important.

  25. Louise Perrin said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    If you asked for a couple of apples in Cardiff's Central Market (Wales) the fruit seller would ask "d'ya want 2 or 3?"

  26. bfwebster said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    Looking at the original quoted text, I thought, "Oh, look, he left out 'of'." But then I realized that I have no problem saying something like, "Yeah, I've done that a couple times", and I don't think of that as dropping "of" at all.

    On the other hand, if I say something like, "Couple years ago, I went on a cruise", in my own mind, that is a deliberate swallowing of "a" and "of" (around "couple") for a more casual 'voice'.

  27. BZ said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    New Jersey here (east, west, and in between over the years). In my idiolect, the use of "couple" without "of" is constrained, and I can't figure out what the rule is if any. "A couple summers ago" or "from now" is fine, but "the first couple summers" sounds wrong. The only rule I can think of is when the "[a] couple X" is a complete sentence in reply to something, it's always ok. So, "How much pie do you want?" "A couple Pieces" is fine, but "Then why don't you call for a couple pieces of pie" is not.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    Just to clean up any regional data anyone's collecting, I used "a couple-three" just to bring in another expression. I never say it and I don't recall hearing it in the Cleveland area.

  29. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    DARE has cites for couple-three (or couple or three or couple a three) going back to 1935. And from their survey conducted in the '60s, they mark it "chiefly Northern," with usage scattered from CT to CA.

    (DARE is silent on the regional distribution of "couple NPs," unfortunately.)

  30. Alyssa said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    I'm from Northern California, and I think I drop "of" pretty much all the time.

    I can also see myself saying "a good couple chances," where the emphasis is that it was more than one, ie:
    "You only gave him one shot?"
    "No, I gave him a good couple chances, but he still couldn't get it right"

  31. Suburbanbanshee said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:13 pm

    "I bought two-three apples" is the same as "I bought a couple three apples."

  32. Matt said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

    Growing up in Australia I was aware of "couple without of", but I thought it was the same structure as "a piece candy" and "a glass tea", which I understood to be Yiddishisms (which influence on English I really only knew from Mad magazine, "How to be a Jewish mother," etc.).

  33. Michael Watts said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

    @Pflaumbaum

    But in a couple more of the blue ones, the "of" is licensed by the "more". Compare I want more of the blue ones. That example uses couple without of.

  34. Michael Watts said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    (Consider that a couple beers alternates freely with a couple of beers, while *a couple more of beers is ungrammatical.)

  35. Terry Hunt said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 4:59 am

    But to this Brit, a couple more of your excellent beers, for example, seems normal.

  36. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    I often heard people say "a couple or three" during the first 16 years of my life in Wisconsin (I have since lived in Massachusetts, except for three years in Ohio), but I've never heard "a couple three."

  37. Michael Watts said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    a couple more of your excellent beers is grammatical (I'm American), and *a couple more your excellent beers isn't. Not by coincidence, the "of" is mandatory in more of your excellent beers. The "couple" has nothing to do with it.

  38. David L. Gold said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

    Born in New York City in 1945, "a couple of…" (including "a couple of more…") comes naturally to my lips (and pen).

    Does Merriam-Webster's "[…] seems to have begun being used" disturb only me? This sounds better: "seems to have arisen," "seems to have originated," and "seems to go back to."

  39. David L. Gold said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    I wonder whether the idiom "a couple-three" ~ "a couple or three" (there is also "couple-four") does not illustrate the word "couple" in the sense of 'two', a usage which I reported for San Francisco in American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage (vol. 61, no. 1, Spring 1986, p. 32).

    A few years before, I had been in San Francisco visiting a friend, who pulled into a gas station one day and asked the attendant for " a couple of dollars' worth." Under my breath, I said, "Louisa, tell him exactly how much you want." She said, "I have."

    "A couple of dollars' worth" meant precisely 'two dollars' worth.' At the time, it did not occur to me to investigate other collocations: would "I took a couple of books out of the library" mean 'I took two books out of the library'? would "a couple of friends came over for supper" mean 'two friends came over for supper'? and so on.

    It would be good if someone carried out fieldwork on the geographical currency of that usage and its collocational limits.

  40. David L. Gold said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

    With respect to Matt's comment, "Growing up in Australia I was aware of "couple without of", but I thought it was the same structure as "a piece candy" and "a glass tea", which I understood to be Yiddishisms":

    1. To the extent that speakers of Yidish [I prefer that spelling] and their immediate descendants use "a glass tea," the construction is indeed from Yidish, which has "a gloz tey" (if the glass is large), "a glezl tey" (if the glass is small), and "a glezele tey" (if the glass is very small or one wants to use an affective form).

    2. "A piece candy" is in all likelihood not from Yidish, which for 'piece of candy' has tsukerl (a diminutive form of tsuker 'sugar').

    3. If *?"a piece fruit" occurs among speakers of Yidish and their immediate descendants (does it?), its source is Yidish ("a shtikl oyps").

    How do you [plural] react to "a piece of fruit"? To my ear it sounds non-native (I would say, "Would you like some fruit?," Would you like some more fruit?," and so on).

  41. David L. Gold said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    Reacting to Vance Koven's comment, Jerry Friedman says:

    "Vance Koven: German (and Yiddish?), or the influence of "a few"."

    Yidish does not appear to influence Yidish-speakers use of "couple." Rather, it could influence their use of "pair," as in "a pair pants" (< Yidish "a por hoyzn").

    That is, having in mind Yidish "por" + noun phrase, they would be far likelier to choose the English cognate of the word "por" rather than the word "couple." Yidish has no cognate of "couple."

    I suspect that the same is true of German: German "Paar" + noun phrase should induce "pair" + noun phrase rather than *"couple" + noun phrase. German "ein Paar Wuerstchen," for example, could induce "a pair sausages" 'two sausages'.

    Is there no way of getting italics in these comments? I prefer italics to double quotation marks for cited forms.

  42. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 4:49 am

    @ David-

    Write to start the italics, and to close them. For bold, substitute b for i.

  43. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 4:53 am

    Hmm, that didn't work!

    Open triangular bracket <
    Type i
    Close bracket
    Write word you want to italicise.
    Open bracket
    Type /
    Type i
    Close bracket

  44. Mark Dowson said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    @Jerry Friedman "needs washed" and similar elisions of "to be" is common in many UK regional dialects, but not "a couple beers".
    There seem to be similarities to "out the window" which seems to be common US usage, but is rare or considered ungrammatical in the UK.

  45. David L. Gold said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 8:11 pm

    Ben Yagoda said, "Couple without of grates on me, but even I find it hard to avoid when "couple" is followed by "more."

    If you are uncomfortable with both "a couple of more" and "a couple more," "a few more" is a good substitute.

  46. Chas Belov said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 12:08 am

    Pittsburgh-raised.

    I say "needs washed".

    I'm not sure on the "of" question with "couple" but would not be surprised to learn that I use "couple" both with and without an "of".

    I would definitely say "a couple more"; "a couple of more" sounds awkward or stuffy to me.

    I don't recall ever hearing or saying "couple three" but I liked it instantly upon reading it. I would have taken it to mean "two or three" not "three to a few more".

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