Common Errors in Spoken English: Couple

Why Is a Couple Times Not Enough?

by Owen Fourie

When I heard someone say “a couple times” a few years ago, it did not sound right.

Since then, I have heard the word couple being used in this way many times, and it still does not have any air of correctness about it.

This incorrect usage has become commonplace, and in phrases such as

  • a couple more things,
  • a couple more images,
  • a couple more years,

it has become quite acceptable.

It has crept into written usage too. Recently, I read the following in a book that was published in 2009:

… but within a couple hundred years …

I had thought of including this usage in the English Grammar category as a common error in written English.

However, the correct use of this term doesn’t really have an indisputable place in formal writing, so I decided that its incorrect usage should feature as an error in spoken English where it undoubtedly originated.

Restoring the missing word

Accepted usage for hundreds of years for this word as a noun has been “a couple of,” so we would have

  • a couple of times;
  • a couple of things;
  • a couple of years.

By using the word couple, we normally understand that it refers to two things, but more often it is used to mean a few of something. It is this vagueness that makes it unacceptable in formal writing, although some writers prefer it for situations where an exact description of quantity is not needed.

Whether it is used in speech or in writing as a noun, the correct form is always “a couple of things,” not “a couple things.”

Similarly, “a couple more things” should be avoided, not to say “a couple of more things,” which would sound awkward, but if the word more is retained, it is better to eliminate couple and be specific: “two more things,” “three more things.”

This would also apply to the phrase “but within a couple hundred years” noted above. “Two hundred” would be what should have been written.

Are you permitted to use the expression “couple of” in your formal written assignments? Are there other expressions that have perhaps made you wonder if they are being used correctly? Mention them here to get clarification. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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    • Christoper on October 6, 2015 at 15:29

    It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgrable people on this subject,
    but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes. “A couple more” instead of “a couple of things” seems to be commonplace today and for those of us who are used to the correct form it remains irksome.

    • Rick Lauzon on September 23, 2012 at 14:44

    re “a couple of more” and “couple of” in general. Your comments are all OK, but I’m always looking for a “rule” to explain or “prove” to someone that “a couple of more” and ” a couple hundred” are dreadful sounding phrases. I just saw “couple hundred” in Nat Geog.

    But my point in this message is only that I am very comfortable in using “please buy me a couple of dozen apples” to mean exactly what I intend to say – i.e. get somewhere between 20 and 28 apples. (Perhaps the lower number if the quality is poor, or the price is high). Most people would understand this perfectly well, and “two dozen” is NOT what is intended. The degree of formality in speech or writing is irrelevant here. “A couple of” has a well understood meaning for all usages, formal or otherwise. As usages vary by region, I should mention that I’m in Toronto, Ontario.

    1. Rick: Thank you for your comment.

      The usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language would support your “please buy me a couple of dozen apples.”

      “… Although the phrase a couple of has been well established in English since before the Renaissance, modern critics have sometimes maintained that a couple of is too inexact to be appropriate in formal writing. But the inexactitude of a couple of may serve a useful purpose, suggesting that the writer is indifferent to the precise number of items involved. Thus the sentence She lives only a couple of miles away implies not only that the distance is short but that its exact measure is unimportant. This usage should be considered unobjectionable on all levels of style. The of in the phrase a couple of is often dropped in speech, but this omission is usually considered a mistake, especially in formal contexts. Three-fourths of the Usage Panel finds the sentence I read a couple books over vacation to be unacceptable; however, another 20 percent of the Panel finds the sentence to be acceptable in informal speech and writing.” ~

      As for a rule to explain or prove that “a couple of more” and “a couple hundred” should be avoided, I haven’t seen any (apart from the reference to “a couple books” above), but acceptable formal speech precludes such usage. Even in informal speech, I find that people who know the formal usage still balk at these expressions.

      Personally, I would feel uncomfortable saying “please buy me a couple of dozen apples.”

      1. I would definitely not say “a couple of dozen apples.” The word dozen means twelve. In effect, I would be saying “a couple of twelve apples,” which really implies a couple of these or those twelve apples, i.e. two or a few of them, not two dozen or so. It would be better and more to the point to say “about two dozen apples,” meaning 20 or 28 depending on price or quality.

        On second thought, and contrary to what I said in my earlier comment, the greater part of the Usage Panel may not be happy with “a couple of dozen apples.” But this is simply my opinion of what their standpoint may be. Frankly, I am finding it difficult not to put “a couple of dozen” in the same category as “a couple of more.”

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