LINGUIST List 11.202

Tue Feb 1 2000

Sum: for Query 11.190:"a couple" vs "a couple of"

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>


  1. Tom Fitzsimmons, Summary of comments on "a couple" vs "a couple of"

Message 1: Summary of comments on "a couple" vs "a couple of"

Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2000 11:51:34 +0000
From: Tom Fitzsimmons <>
Subject: Summary of comments on "a couple" vs "a couple of"

I posted a question recently, asking if anyone else had noticed that 
people in some states of America were saying sentences like: "I have 
a couple lines left" instead of "I have a couple of lines left." I 
had heard the "a couple" term mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota 
and thought it might have originated in those places and spread with 
out-migration to places like California and Washington. 

I was always surprised to hear people using "a couple" instead of "a
couple of" and thought it was a result of a local usage, laziness or
ignorance of grammar. The responses have been a real education for
me, showing that the "a couple" form is widespread and common. 
There were two respondents who presented the hypothesis that "a
couple" is one more in the list of English language indefinite 
terms. That seems to me to be a positively brilliant insight.

I am organizing the responses by the position the take or 
te hypothesis they take. The position or hypothesis is 
summarized in angle brackets, <<...>>, at the head of the 
grouped responses. The responses range from those who use either of 
the forms themselves and see nothing wrong with 
the "a couple" form, to those who have seen both and think there is a 
new indefinite quantity word coming into being in American (and 
Canadian?) English. 

Where I have any comments, I have them in square brackets, followed 
by my initials [... . T.J.F.]

Please pardon any liberties I have taken with omitting lines between 
the respondents original paragraphs: I did that to make it plain 
that a response was from a single person.

Tom Fitzsimmons.


<<Possibly a result of carryover from other languages.>>

"This doesn't surprise me. In Dutch, it's 'een paar dingen',
similar in German. And 'paar' does not suggest two, but rather a
couple of, a few."

"The "couple" point you mention really does sound like influence from
a German substrate, doesn't it? (ein Paar Zeilen) -- from my skimpy
knowledge of N. American settlement patterns, the states you mention
sound like ones where there might have been a fair number of German
speaking immigrants (more Scandinavians, I suppose -- but for all I
know Scandinavian languages may have the same pattern)."
[North Dakota has many 'Germans from Russia' in the central to 
western part of the state and many Scandinavians in the eastern 
part. T.J.F.]


<<I hear and use both forms, and both seem correct.>>

"I say both, and the of-less form is quite common where I am from 
(Seattle, Washington state). Is the of-less form unheard of in 
Ireland?" [I've never heard or seen it here in Ireland, although 
I've only been here 3 years as a transplanted Yank. T.J.F.]

"I'm from Seattle and I get both forms just fine. ('I'd like a
couple cookies' sounds a little better to me than 'I'd like a couple
of cookies'.)" [Thousands of North Dakotans have migrated to
Washington State! T.J.F.]

"I am a 49-year-old native speaker of West Coast US English. I have
visited Minnesota once, for two weeks. I've never been to North
Dakota, I've been to Iowa once for less than a day. I usually say
'couple of' rather than 'couple', but not always. I doubt that I
would even notice the lack of 'of' in all but the most formal

"I don't believe that using 'a couple' for 'a couple of' is regional
in the U.S. I am from Massachusetts and lived in California for
years; I have heard it in both places and use it myself. I do only
use it in speech - I consider it more informal than 'a couple of.'

"I'm from the Hoosac Valley in W. Mass and we say e.g. 'I have a
couple apples left' etc. all the time! It might not be a dialect 

"This phenomenon is not limited to the states you named. I don't know
how old it might be. I'm a lifelong resident of the northeastern USA,
and I hear both versions, and I say both myself. I couldn't tell you
which I say more often."

"I have lived in the upstate area of New York all of my life and
went to college about 10 mins. from where I grew up. I can tell you
that from knowing my regions dialect quite well, many people in my
area also say 'a couple lines left', but more often it's spoken
phonetically as 'a couple a lines left', where both 'a' s in the
sentence would be pronounced as a schwa sound."

"I noticed your question the other day on LINGUIST regarding 'a 
couple' versus 'a couple of' and wanted to let you know that both are
freely used easily as far east as Michigan, where I was raised and
study now. I asked around, and nobody seems to have any trouble with
sentences like your 'There are a couple lines left to finish.' and
produce them often. In casual situations (e.g. 'There are a couple
beers/pops in the fridge.') the 'couple of' form sounds really
stilted, and my intuition on this was confirmed by several others. I
guess I didn't realize this was an unusual form, or is the phenomenon
less limited than you originally thought?"

"Actually, I'm from NE Ohio and either is acceptable. The inclusion
of "of" is slightly more formal."

"I can say 'a couple' too, as well as 'a couple of'. I'm from 


<<Perhaps "a couple" is "a couple of" but is heard wrong because 
the "of" in "a couple of" is almost not pronounced.>>

"Do they write this too? [Yes, definitely! I also see it on the
Internet often, and up until getting all these responses, I just
thought it was a regionalism affected by German or Scandinavian
language heritage. T.J.F.] Are you sure it is not a difference 
between [k^pl] and [k^pl] being swallowed/elided with the following 
material? When I say "couple of lines" fast it sounds like the "f 
l-" is missed- the difference between "(to) couple lines" and "(a) 
couple of lines" is lengthening of both the [l] and the [i]. With 
"(a/to) couple (of) things" the [l] and -th- are coarticulated -viz. 
the tongue is forming the -th- before the [l] is sounded and the 
difference is that he [] for of occurs during this coarticulation 
(just before the release of the [th]. Looking at how people write it 
would provide the easiest way of seeing whether they think of it with 
or without the 'of'. It could well be that the 'of' is on the way 
out - that's the logical next step once you can no longer hear it. 

cf. should/could/would have -> would've -> would of -> would a -> 

The last step being resisted by the loss of tense/aspect distinction,
but I am pretty sure I have heard it (in US speakers) with the
perfective sense, but I don't believe I've seen it written - the other
forms I have seen written - in fact the 'of' version is highly
prevalent. Again just the fact that people may write them doesn't 
mean they won't recognize them as wrong on reading them ('would a' is 
in that category). This 'frequens' phenomena of moving from the less 
frequent word to the more frequent word has been observed in grammar 
correction research - whereas the null hypothesis that errors occur 
independently of the frequency of words would predict the opposite 
error was more common. The omission of word seems to work the same 
way, and can be regarded as a null substitution - to return to your 
original question."

[I agree that many speakers hardly pronounce the "of" in "a couple 
of", but I think that the form is often written "a couple" is 
strongly suggestive that it is not simply a glide but is an 
intentional dropping of the "of" part of the sentence. T.J.F.] 

<<It is a new form for an indefinite number, as "few" is such a 

"We say <a hundred lines> because <a hundred> is a numeral, but
<hundreds of lines> because pluralizing 'hundred' makes it
'nounier'. The speakers you observe are turning <a couple> into a
numeral. Polish speakers turn the accusaive of <para>, which is
<pare> (nasal e), into a numeral when they say 'in a pair places'
(<w paru miejscach>) rather than 'in a pair of places' (<w parze

"I agree with you. I'm hearing just 'a couple' a lot, and I suspect
that I sometimes say it myself. I suspect that what is happening is
that 'couple' is coming into the English list of indefinite numbers,
just below 'few'. (I suspect that is just coming into the language
because I know one person about my age who is an intelligent speaker
of American English and who insists that 'couple' should not be used
that way; also because some older books don't mention it.) If
'couple' with this meaning is new in the language, I suspect that it
is picking up the grammar of the semantically adjacent word 'few'.
I.e. since one can say 'a few books' and 'a couple of books', one
can also say 'a couple books'. I am 65 years old and a native
speaker of North Midland American English."

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue