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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I recently (and with unfortunate imprecision in word choice) sent a work email suggesting that someone send a "couple of" people to attend a training class.

I grew up in rural Colorado. In my neck of the woods, at least, "couple" was not really a fixed number. It might mean two. It might mean three. It might mean "several."  "Gimme a couple of them washers, Henry." And Henry scoops up a few washers and drops them in a bag without bothering to count.

The person to whom I sent the email interpreted my message to mean that she could nominate two people for the class. Not three. Not four. No calling to ask if she could send five. Two. That's it. Two.

Never occurred to me that my (unprofessionally sloppy) word choice would be interpreted so literally. I'll be more careful in the future, but it got me wondering how many other words or phrases are so subject to confusion.

I just looked up "couple" in my Webster's and found that synonyms are "two" and "few".  So it wasn't just my neck of the woods!
 

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I'm the opposite. If people mean only two, they write two. In my world "a couple" means "a few," and it could just as well be three or four.
If someone said "We can each invite a couple of people to the party" I wouldn't assume it meant I could only invite two people?

 

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kathrynoh said:
So when people say they are in a couple... that can mean more than two people?
I never heard people say that? Can you say "we are in a couple?" without being pervy?
"We are a couple" means roughly "we are two people." Otherwise I would use the word threesome.



I think I distracted myself. Anyway. "A couple of people" to me means two or more. Yes, I know it is informal speech
and is frowned upon in formal writing, but it's often used as a determiner in informal speech meaning "a small group."
 

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I would interpret a couple in the context of the OP as meaning two or three. Anything more than that and you're getting into the territory of a few. I'd still always call to clarify, though. ;)
 

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I'm from Alabama and I've had this argument repeatedly in my house.

To me, a couple is two.
But all around me it's two or three.
To me, a few is three or four.
But apparently everyone else thinks it's three to six.
To me, several is five to nine.
Apparently it's actually five to thirty or so depending on what the item in question is.

I don't even.
 

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A couple is absolutely two.

Otherwise is half a dozen 5 - 7? No, half a dozen is 6. Could it mean a one more or one less? No, six it is! You could of course change the meaning by saying "Half a dozen or so" but it would require those extra words.

A dozen is twelve, a litre is a litre, an ounce is an ounce.

If you want a more ambiguous term you would say "A few" or "Several". They have no fixed number.
 

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When I was growing up in the South a college professor asked me to hand her a couple items. When I asked exactly how many she replied, 'A COUPLE means TWO."

She was from the North but I still felt rather pointy-headed.

It's the South, y'all. A 'couple' is relative. So is the difference between 'lunch' and 'dinner'. though 'supper' specifically happens anytime between three and six.

Now I'm off to the thee-AY-tuh.
 

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I think everyone pretty much understands what the correct form is. As I understand it, then the OP wonders whether others
have used "a couple" as meaning more than two - in informal speech. It seems a couple of us have done that. "A couple" here
referring to more than two...

m p said:
It's the South, y'all. A 'couple' is relative. So is the difference between 'lunch' and 'dinner'.
Yep.
 

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Ooh, now you're treading in dangerous territory with us Brits.  The traditionalists amongst us are pretty set about meal times and names.
 

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In common parlance, I think most people take the word in context.  There are times when "couple" means not only two, but a pairing, as in a romantic duo:  "Check out the couple by the bar," or "This dance is for couples only."  As far as I know, other usage of the words is generally understood to be "more than one, but less than five."  If I tell the server at Five Guys to "throw a couple of pickles on it," I don't expect her to painstakingly count out two pickles for my burger.  And if there are three or even four customers in line, I'll say, "there are a couple of people ahead of me." 
 

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Jena H said:
As far as I know, other usage of the words is generally understood to be "more than one, but less than five." If I tell the server at Five Guys to "throw a couple of pickles on it," I don't expect her to painstakingly count out two pickles for my burger. And if there are three or even four customers in line, I'll say, "there are a couple of people ahead of me."
Eek, I would consider that very poor English, or at least lazy slang. But you are American, and your language has evolved quite differently from ours, so I am quite prepared to accept that "a couple" means something different over there than it does here
 

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Evenstar said:
Eek, I would consider that very poor English, or at least lazy slang. But you are American, and your language has evolved quite differently from ours, so I am quite prepared to accept that "a couple" means something different over there than it does here
Yes, since I'm American, obviously I can't speak for all people everywhere. I can't even claim to represent all Americans... I just know how I and people around me speak.
 

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Interesting enough, the accent and grammar of American Southern English is far closer to Old English than contemporary British English.

http://mentalfloss.com/article/29761/when-did-americans-lose-their-british-accents

There's another explanation in this video about the American Southern accent being much closer to the old English accent than the British Received Pronunciation accent.


Apparently a lot of our silly southern words like cattywampus come straight from Old England.
 

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Evenstar said:
Eek, I would consider that very poor English, or at least lazy slang. But you are American, and your language has evolved quite differently from ours, so I am quite prepared to accept that "a couple" means something different over there than it does here
I'm quite sure you would be able to hear something similar in the UK. That's my experience, anyway.
 

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I keep disagreeing with Stella on British-related stuff (I can only assume it's because we're from different parts of the UK) and I'm going to do it again regarding the word couple. ;D As far as I know it's perfectly acceptable to use the word inexactly if it's clear you're talking about "a small number." In other cases, of course (like Mr. and Mrs. X are a couple), it definitely means two.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Interesting the differences!  And I especially love the point about two people making a couple. I would never infer that might be a threesome, only two. Didn't think of that!

Now off to work to apologize for the confusion, with a solemn promise never to do it again.
 
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