A Couple Of Thoughts On Why ‘Couple’ And ‘Of’ Must Stay Together

A Couple Of Thoughts On Why ‘Couple’ And ‘Of’ Must Stay Together

Here’s the issue: in Australian English (and British English) the word ‘couple’ is always followed by ‘of’ when used as a collective noun: ‘a couple of days’, ‘a couple of idiots’. American English has seemingly dropped that requirement, resulting in such oddities as ‘a couple weeks’ and ‘a couple problems’. I accept that spelling and grammar vary between dialects and change over time. Just don’t expect me to go along with this particular horror.

Picture by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s certainly an illogical and inconsistent position. As far as I’m aware, no-one in America would skip the ‘of’ in an expression after similar collective nouns such as ‘pair’ or ‘number’. However, illogical and inconsistent rules abound in most languages, whichever variant you favour.

If the American people want to write ‘a couple times’, I won’t stand in the way. But I won’t stand for it in written Australian English, especially in a professional context.

I mention this merely because we’re all now so frequently exposed to the American usage online. As with other variations, there’s a danger that ill-informed writers will assume this is acceptable behaviour. It simply isn’t in an Australian context. It’s not a difficult rule to remember; it should take no more than a couple of minutes to absorb. Do so!

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    • Only the first one is a collective noun. The other two are singular, a ‘couple’ in those contexts being, not a number of people, but the singular noun of the entity created by two people in a relationship.

      So while a couple dance (no of), a couple of people dance. Because in the first instance there is one entity, a couple, and in the second there is two, two individuals.

  • Sometime they drop ‘to’ as well. As in “I wrote her about that” or “Write me”
    I wonder if these are really “Americanisms” or older English expressions. Many things that we take to be Americanisms are actually English from the time that America was settled. While English moved on and evolved in its native land, the older expressions remained part of American English.

    • There’s examples of this in Australia though too. I still find it weird to hear my Aussie wife say “We need to go to hospital”. What happened to “the” as in “to the hospital”? It’s just sounds odd to me.

      • Well there are subtle distinctions in idiomatic usage when it comes to hospital-going. For example, the difference between:
        If you get really sick, you’ll need to go to hospital.
        I’ll be away next week, I have to go to hospital for an operation.
        [That is, the generalised act of going to hospital.]
        I’m feeling so sick, can you take me to the hospital.
        I’m going to the hospital on Monday for my a pre-admission check-up.
        [Going to a specific hospital as a destination.]

  • I don’t know about everyone else but my brain inserts the missing words when ever I read/hear this. Most of the time it’s just people speaking fast or mumbling the “of” into the words.

  • The title of the article says you have thoughts on *why* this phrase should stay the way it is, but it seems you left them out of the article. You just repeatedly told us that it shouldn’t change.

    So… why?

  • Completely agree with this article. For some reason this grates on me a bit. It doesn’t work if you replace the word couple with any collective noun, like “a gaggle geese”. My other personal favourite is when some Americans (and probably other nationalities…) say, “I could care less”, when they mean that they “could NOT care less”. If they stopped to think about the logic of the sentence, the mistake would be quite clear to see. But then, I am Australian, and we have a habit of butchering our language at times too…

    • I’m American and it pisses me off when people say “I could care less” as well. It’s not just Americans that do this though. It’s a trend of this newer generation and it’s all over the world.

      Schools are failing our children when it comes to English. This is a huge problem where some don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s” or “they’re”, “their” and “there” among other examples. They’re quick to write off the need to know the correct usage of these words when they have spell check and whatnot.

  • The one that annoys me the most, which is used a lot here and in the US, is ‘get off of ….’ . This is clearly wrong , using two prepositions when only one is correct.

  • First, I lived and worked in the northeast/midwest US for three years and NEVER saw a written instance of “couple” without its accompanying “of”. Not in publications and not in correspondence. (And I would have noticed it because part of my working role was an editorial one and as an Australian I was paying close attention to the spelling, grammar, idioms of speech and punctuation of my “new language”.) If I heard it – which I don’t especially recall – I would have put it down to a swallowed/garbled “of” as the result of speed.

    So this must be a very recent trend Angus has observed, or one that is at present confined to a relatively small region or community. Quite frankly, there are more serious linguistic issues to get worked up about on a slow news day .

    Which leads me to my larger point…

    Yes, we should be alert to sloppy, mistaken use of language . The “could of” instead of “could have” is a good example of this kind of thing: it’s very easy to see how such a mistake arises through the misspelling of “could’ve”, but it’s nonetheless wrong.

    But let’s be generous about all the wonderful, quirky differences that exist in variations of English around the world. They enrich our language overall and shouldn’t be automatically categorised as somehow wrong or grammatically inferior.

    Yes, Americans say “in back of” instead of the much more efficient “behind”, but there’s a charming logic to it, since it mirrors “in front of”. Yes, they say “write me”; but then, we all say “call me” and it’s the same conceptual construction…

    Yes, Americans use the idiom “Monday through Friday”. If you think about it, that’s a less ambiguous statement than “Monday till Friday”, since it clearly indicates all five days. But in any case, these are just regional differences in usage, not errors of grammar.

    What I did find sad is that most Americans are unfamiliar with that very useful term “fortnight”. They say “two weeks” instead. Perhaps it’s because no one in the US seems to be paid fortnightly – it’s always monthly – so there’s been no pressing need for a convenient word for “two weeks”.

    But going the other way, Americans have retained the very useful past participle “gotten”. The British abandoned this form of the verb “to get” centuries ago and so most Australians have been brought up to believe this is ungrammatical. Nonsense, saying “I’ve gotten” is no more ungrammatical than saying “I’ve written” or “I’ve ridden”, in fact it’s a more precise grammatical construction than “I’ve got”. But “gotten” has simply fallen out of standard British/Australian usage, which I think is kind of sad. As AJ says above, some of these “newfangled Americanisms” turn out to be very old indeed.

    Anyway, having worked in writing/editorial roles in both the US and Australia (as well as for British markets), I can only say: let’s rejoice in regional differences and take pleasure in the variety and flexibility that’s inherent in our language.

    • Not true. If you write me a letter, must send it *to* me, so you write *to* me.

      If you call me on the phone or whatever you do not send the call *to* me, so you just *call* me.

      However, yes, if we were in the same room you could possibly say you were calling to me (like chocolate or cake often does!)

      • I disagree, and your own words prove the point:
        “If you write me a letter” becomes in its abridged form “If you write me” – “a letter” implied and no “to” required

        In a conversational context:
        A. “I don’t remember all the details just now.”
        F. “That’s ok, write me a letter about it when you remember.”
        Which can be shortened quite plausibly to:
        F. “That’s ok, write me when you remember.”

        Now I’m not claiming this is idiomatic Australian English. But it’s certainly not *wrong*, and it does have a conceptual logic to it.

  • On a side note, though related, is the way of saying/writing dates that I’ve heard since moving here a recent(ish) Americanism or not? I refer to. for example, April 12/April twelfth/12 April. I would have thought that, given Australia’s heritage, twelfth of April (said) or 12th April (written) would be the more common way.

    • Standard Australian style recommends this sequence for dates: day date month year
      Among other things, it’s logical in going from smallest unit of time to longest and it removes the need for punctuation between adjacent words or between adjacent numbers. And yes, American style is the much fussier: day, month date, year

      I too am seeing American-style dates more and more in Australia. In particular in mainstream newspapers. I’m really not sure why this is. ☺
      Exceptions and ironies: “September 11” can only be phrased that way, regardless of what country you’re writing for, and Americans break their own rule with “Fourth of July”.

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