12 votes

Longstanding discourse w/ my SO about the phrase "a couple of..."

#couple
Defined as:

noun:
couple; plural noun: couples

1.
two individuals of the same sort considered together.
"a couple of girls were playing marbles"

a pair of partners in a dance or game.

MECHANICS

a pair of equal and parallel forces acting in opposite directions, and tending to cause rotation about an axis perpendicular to the plane containing them.

2.
two people who are married, engaged, or otherwise closely associated romantically or sexually.
"in three weeks the couple fell in love and became engaged"

3. INFORMAL

an indefinite small number.
"he hoped she'd be better in a couple of days"


verb: couple;

3rd person present: couples

past tense: coupled

past participle: coupled

gerund or present participle: coupling

1.
combine.

"a sense of hope is coupled with a palpable sense of loss"

join to form a pair.
"the beetles may couple up to form a pair"

2.
mate or have sexual intercourse.
"as middle-class youth grew more tolerant of sex, they started to couple more often"




#Discourse of the use of the word/phrase in this particular case

You

"how many would you like?"

Them

"just a couple."


When someone requests 'a couple of...' I respond with something similar to: 'How many do you want specifically?', which leads to the discourse of, 'A couple is two, a few is >2, several is <x' and so on.

I agree with the first two clearly stated definitions of 'couple', but in the informal use of a couple (eg. a depiction of a quantity) is not specifically two...nor is 'a few' three. How many specifically is several..?

I understand the semantics within the conversation. But, the expectation of understanding that two, and only two, is implied in the use of the phrase 'a couple' in a request; is ambiguously stating what one party desires. I'm the asshole now, just tell me how many you want.

And now...your thoughts, please.

16 comments

  1. [2]
    knocklessmonster
    Link
    I've always been extremely uptight about definitions of things, but to me "couple" has been "two," and "a few" has been "more than two, typically three, but can be more." "I'll bring you a couple"...

    I've always been extremely uptight about definitions of things, but to me "couple" has been "two," and "a few" has been "more than two, typically three, but can be more."

    "I'll bring you a couple" means I've got two to give you. "I'll bring you a few" means whatever is the intended distribution: Three of six beers, three of twelve bananas, whatever. With the exclusion of the romantic "couple," most other uses are so ambiguous I tend to avoid them because I tend to already think I've got enough problems clearly communicating with others, unless I'm somehow specifically referring to a known pair of things being connected.

    10 votes
    1. bub
      Link Parent
      As someone who likewise cares about precision in language, I agree that "a couple" means two, in a general sense. It's funny to talk about a number having a "general sense," because we understand...

      As someone who likewise cares about precision in language, I agree that "a couple" means two, in a general sense.

      It's funny to talk about a number having a "general sense," because we understand a number to be perfectly concrete and deliberate normally.

      So the way I'd describe "two in general" is that if someone asks you for "a couple bananas" but takes three instead of two, nothing will be amiss.

      5 votes
  2. [9]
    nothis
    Link
    I'm not a native English speaker so the definition as "exactly two" was surprising to me, despite making perfect sense. I always read it as "a few", definitely not a specific number. What's funny...

    I'm not a native English speaker so the definition as "exactly two" was surprising to me, despite making perfect sense. I always read it as "a few", definitely not a specific number.

    What's funny is, I looked up the best translation in a dictionary and in German it's "ein paar", literally "a pair" which has the exact same problem, lol. In German, though, I definitely read "ein paar Zitronen" ("a couple of lemons") as meaning 3 or 5 (you'd say 1 or 2 if that's what you meant). Meanwhile, "ein Paar Schuhe" ("a pair of shoes") would obviously mean two shoes, two things that belong together and form a whole. I'd capitalize the latter as it's a noun while writing the former as lower case as I'd consider it a pronoun.

    8 votes
    1. jtvjan
      Link Parent
      Same issue here in Dutch. You say “een paar citroenen” to mean “a few lemons”, but some pedant replies “a couple is always two!”.

      Same issue here in Dutch. You say “een paar citroenen” to mean “a few lemons”, but some pedant replies “a couple is always two!”.

      5 votes
    2. [6]
      vektor
      Link Parent
      That capitalization is not just you. Ein Paar is a "couple-pair-twoOfAThing" and ein paar is "a few". Entirely different words. Can't nobody tell me paar is specifically only two, that's what Paar...

      That capitalization is not just you. Ein Paar is a "couple-pair-twoOfAThing" and ein paar is "a few". Entirely different words. Can't nobody tell me paar is specifically only two, that's what Paar is for.

      3 votes
      1. [5]
        nothis
        Link Parent
        I know Duden claims it's two words but I have my gripes with German spelling and grammar and I just gotta say: It's exactly the same word, just used differently (and spelled differently, to make...

        I know Duden claims it's two words but I have my gripes with German spelling and grammar and I just gotta say: It's exactly the same word, just used differently (and spelled differently, to make school kids miserable). That's like saying "Decke" is two words because it can mean "blanket" or "ceiling". One clearly was a metaphor for the other and no difference in spelling is needed to transfer that meaning. Etymology suggests "paar" might come from "barn", referring to stable animals or a latin word for "satchel". I find the historic aspect fascinating, the meaning in everyday use somewhat relevant but the grammatical categorization pretty much useless.

        4 votes
        1. [4]
          vektor
          Link Parent
          I don't think the grammatical categorization is quite as useless as you may think. The difference in capitalization is a result of paar and Paar being different parts of speech. Paar is a noun and...

          I don't think the grammatical categorization is quite as useless as you may think. The difference in capitalization is a result of paar and Paar being different parts of speech. Paar is a noun and paar is a pronoun, as your link indicates; capitalization has to follow that. So I don't think the difference is at all to make school kids miserable. However, I'm not advocating for nitpicking the spelling here; most often, context will sort you out, so usually I don't care much.

          I can see your argument for treating Decke and Decke the same; there's no functional difference between treating them as one word with two meanings or two words. However, the same doesn't apply to paar and Paar, where switching them out for one another will mess up the grammar of a sentence.

          As for gripes with the German language, there's bigger fish to fry. A thing that haunts school kids much more and has no upside at all is the way we pronounce numbers > 12. Zwanzigeins all the way.

          1 vote
          1. [3]
            nothis
            Link Parent
            Disclaimer: This is a rather stubborn pet peeve of mine, so feel free to read the following with generous amounts of eye-roll. I've long thought that German spelling and grammar is both...

            Disclaimer: This is a rather stubborn pet peeve of mine, so feel free to read the following with generous amounts of eye-roll.

            I've long thought that German spelling and grammar is both embarrassingly inconsistent and stupidly complex. Nobody benefits from these rules yet millions of kids suffer through it in school as some kind of sadistic exercise in arbitrary rule-learning. I realize that we can't change spoken language, we won't get rid of 3 different articles for nouns or the formal "Sie". But when a word sounds exactly the same as another in spoken language, there is very little reason to spell it differently and certainly no real danger of it causing confusion. Intonation can be captured by punctuation and mostly it's just context, anyway.

            For example, we needlessly capitalize absolutely useless niche cases like "das Beste". The article clearly refers to an unmentioned other, not the word "best", it's not a fucking noun or at least not noun-y enough to introduce capitalization. If anything, the capitalized "B" just confuses, making it look like a brand name or something. We still have two spellings of the article "das", arbitrarily spelling it "dass" when it's just short for "das Folgende". "Ich sagte, dass es morgen regnen wird." ("I said that it will rain tomorrow.") uses the exact same words as "Morgen wird es regnen, das sagte ich.", yet we spell it differently. Why? How does the extra "s" help reading? It doesn't, that's why people make the mistake so often!

            German is full of stuff like that. English has a few weirdly spelled words and more ways to write the same speech sound but it doesn't capitalize every other word in a sentence and "that" doesn't suddenly become "thatt" in a slightly different context.

            I've been hoping for a gutsy spelling reform for a many years but it probably won't happen because of pseudo-intellectual gatekeeping, nostalgically clinging to learned aesthetics in letter-combination and academic wankery. Get rid of the "ß" (but for real), all "th", capitalization of (non-proper) nouns and the goddamn "dass". One generation would have to swallow some change but all future ones would be spared so much misery.

            *Collects manic scribblings and walks back to his seat in silence*

            3 votes
            1. [2]
              vektor
              Link Parent
              A moderate amount of eye-rolling was had. I assume you can infer why from my previous posts. For context, are you a native speaker? You seem to have been thinking about this for a while, yet you...

              A moderate amount of eye-rolling was had. I assume you can infer why from my previous posts.

              For context, are you a native speaker? You seem to have been thinking about this for a while, yet you also approach the language with what seems to me to be English brain, so I'm not sure.

              1. nothis
                Link Parent
                I'm Austrian. So if you're from Germany, you might disagree. ;)

                are you a native speaker?

                I'm Austrian. So if you're from Germany, you might disagree. ;)

                1 vote
  3. [2]
    TemulentTeatotaler
    (edited )
    Link
    If I invited someone over to play a couple games of cribbage I probably don't mean two, but I might in some circumstances where I have a schedule to keep. If I asked for a couple pancakes I'd...

    If I invited someone over to play a couple games of cribbage I probably don't mean two, but I might in some circumstances where I have a schedule to keep.

    If I asked for a couple pancakes I'd probably be asking for two... but then if I got a normal pancake and one of those runty shame waffles my request was clearly not honored in spirit.

    My opinion is there isn't anything that's clearly correct. There's ambiguity in the usage, and when that ambiguity dips beneath some threshold (e.g., asking for <large discrete uniform-sized food items>) it makes sense for the other person to expect you not to be using the indefinite definition.

    Personally I care more about communicating than being pedantic about rules/guidelines of language, and what is communicated is based on some probabilistic norms of the context. The Chomsky view lost.

    I generally think pedants are a good thing, though, since they keep those norms a bit more coherent. Up until the point that they're a minority holdout on some change (e.g., bimbo referring to a brutish man) in language; then they're adding to the ambiguity.

    ...I am kinda curious about what the collective noun for polyamorous people are, though. A blessing of polys? A commitment? If 2/5ths of a relationship were next to each other would you call them a couple? 3/5ths?

    6 votes
    1. imperialismus
      Link Parent
      I'm not poly but I've seen the term "polycule" used, by analogy with molecule. It refers to any connected set of consensual nonmonogamous relationships, but they need not be transitive, i.e. two...

      ...I am kinda curious about what the collective noun for polyamorous people are, though.

      I'm not poly but I've seen the term "polycule" used, by analogy with molecule. It refers to any connected set of consensual nonmonogamous relationships, but they need not be transitive, i.e. two people at the edges of the relationship graph may have no direct relation but are connected through intermediaries. I believe more specific arrangements like three people who are all together have their own names.

      I'll give them that, it's at least clever.

      2 votes
  4. Kenny
    Link
    I think a clarifying question is warranted because of the informal use of the word. However, if you know someone and they've clarified that a couple always means two then you've moved past it and...

    I think a clarifying question is warranted because of the informal use of the word. However, if you know someone and they've clarified that a couple always means two then you've moved past it and can accommodate them accordingly.

    I am very much an informal user of the word couple. A couple simply means a small amount to me.

    6 votes
  5. AnthonyB
    Link
    While we're on the subject, can we talk about the declining use of the 'of' that typically follows the word 'couple?' I had completely removed it from my vocabulary until the spell check on my...

    While we're on the subject, can we talk about the declining use of the 'of' that typically follows the word 'couple?' I had completely removed it from my vocabulary until the spell check on my phone started nagging me about leaving out the 'of.' Now it feels weird to put the 'of' on when I say something like, "Hey, can you bring me a couple pieces of candy?” or something like that. I remember it used to bother me when people left it out, and I felt the same way about the 'ly' when someone would say, "I want [x] so bad!" Somehow, I ended up ditching both.

    4 votes
  6. Thra11
    Link
    If somebody uses a vague or indefinite term like couple, I would usually interpret that as an invitation to use your judgement. For example, if I ask somebody how many potatoes they want, and they...

    When someone requests 'a couple of...' I respond with something similar to: 'How many do you want specifically?'

    If somebody uses a vague or indefinite term like couple, I would usually interpret that as an invitation to use your judgement. For example, if I ask somebody how many potatoes they want, and they say "Just a couple", I would give them 2, 3, or maybe 4, depending on whether I thought the actual potatoes were smaller or larger than average.

    4 votes