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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