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Are there any specific rules that restrict the use of "couple" and "couple of"?

I have a couple of months left.

versus

I have a couple months left.

Are the both sentence above correct and formal? and if we are talking about other object —aside from time/duration — , are "couple" and "couple of" still interchangeable?

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    We got a couple more questions. A couple of questions more. – VijayaRagavan Nov 12 '13 at 10:04
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    @Vijaya - Throwing the "more" in there does mess things up a bit. I don't have any problem with "We have a couple more questions," but I'm not very fond of "We have a couple of questions more". – J.R. Nov 12 '13 at 12:51
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    Also, I recommend writing "we've got" rather than the non-standard "we got". – snailplane Aug 4 '14 at 2:42
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    @J.R. I see nothing wrong with I have a couple of questions more, nor with a couple more questions. – WS2 Jan 11 '17 at 19:09
  • I have a couple months left would not be idiomatic in Britain. The point is that couple is a noun, not an adjective. It is like saying I have a basket of oranges left. You couldn't say I have a basket oranges could you? – WS2 Jan 11 '17 at 19:24
13

Conversationally, I would say there is no difference. Either one of those could be used, and you would be understood.

However, the word couple has an interesting nuance. Strictly speaking, it means two, or a pair. However, the idiom a couple of can be used to mean a small number of, or a few.

Collins brings this out rather nicely, for example. Under its entry for couple we find:

couple
(pronoun) usually preceded by a; functioning as singular or plural two; a pair ⇒ give him a couple

(noun) See a couple of

and under its entry for a couple of, we see:

a couple of
(informal) a small number of; a few ⇒ a couple of days

So, if you were writing in some formal setting (like an official resumé, for example), I would avoid using couple to mean "roughly two or three," and use a couple of instead. However, if you meant to convey "two and only two," then you could feel free to use couple:

I have a couple months left.

That said, many readers won't analyze the difference between these two so closely, so you still risk ambiguity. You might be better off saying:

I have two months left.

The use of "a couple" makes the statement sound very inexact, no matter how Collins might define these words.

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    In British English, I'd suggest that the "of" is compulsory. – Steve Melnikoff Nov 12 '13 at 15:12
  • @SteveMelnikoff - I'm wondering, even if you mean "two"? In other words, if I have two months left on my lease, can I say, "I have a couple months left." – J.R. Nov 12 '13 at 17:34
  • @SteveMelnikoff Consider "Only a couple more boxes left!" You wouldn't say a couple of more here, so do you find it acceptable to simply use a couple in this case? If so, why do you think it's not acceptable in "a couple months left?" (Honestly curious; AmE speaker here, and I'm finding this question very interesting :)) – WendiKidd Nov 13 '13 at 0:28
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    @WendiKidd: you're absolutely right. In that instance, the "of" would be wrong. – Steve Melnikoff Nov 13 '13 at 14:04
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    @J.R.: "a couple months" still sounds (to my BrE ears) like AmE; I'd always say "a couple of months". – Steve Melnikoff Nov 13 '13 at 14:05
6

The expression "a couple questions" is exclusively American. In British English this would be considered an error, and should be replaced with "a couple of questions."

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  • Completely correct. If you omit “of” in this example, in British English it is an error. – Chris Melville Jul 24 at 13:21
3

I live in Georgia, USA, and am 55 years old. In my experience "couple of" has been shortened to "couple" in recent years around here, and not only among folks younger than I. I do not hear it used under any particular circumstances (as opposed to "couple of"). I think it is a case where the expression has just been shortened.

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Unless you are talking about two persons (the couple walked hand-in-hand), the word couple should have of after it. This is because it is used as an expression.

So except talking about a couple; you mention a couple of something, not a couple something

If we still dig in further, we may use couple of for identical things. For example - a couple of roses (which means they are identical) but when it comes to months, you may say a couple months left. You might be talking February and March which are not identically same.

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  • One blogger called this picture "a couple of roses". So, "a couple of" refers to the number, not them being identical. – J.R. Nov 13 '13 at 2:50
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I'm sure I don't like this Collins fellow already, and thank you for helping the ignorant masses dumb down the language with a "living language" philosophy where we race towards ambiguity.

In my world, one where people cared to preserve clarity, "couple" meant two; furthermore, "a couple of" was used "as an expression" only by those who didn't know what it meant exactly, and so they were unquotable. This is in fact why the question is asked in the first place.

Without a degree in English, this would be my logic and explanation.

"A couple" means "two." "A few" means "three."

You might say, "I'd like a couple of them" if the pronoun has an antecedent. That is, John says, "We have a dozen peaches," and Mary responds, "I'd like a couple of them."

Similarly, one might say, "I'd like a few peaches," or "...a few of them."

Also remember, when you correct someone, you are bound to hear the living language theory. That is, the language is living and changing. Words change meanings and you can't stop that. This gives you an out on all your errors, for who is to say that your error isn't made consistently enough to gain relevance. Also, there is no Academy of English defining right and wrong. Schools determine what is right in their institution, and a hiring manager may determine what is right. Your piers may judge helping to define right and wrong in a social circle, but as for a definitive "right" or "wrong" according to an Academy of English, there is no such thing.

I try to look at the etymology of a word and use a form that is logical and clear. The moment ambiguity creeps in, I know there is likely a better word, or meaning to be associated with the word, or punctuation to be applied to the writing.

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  • 1
    I think you mean peers, not piers – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 4 '14 at 1:11
  • Living language theory is a term that sheds unwarranted doubt onto the fact that language is evolving constantly. While it's not an argument for intentional misuse of language, you shouldn't use it in this context to dismiss the fact that language doesn't just live in books and dictionaries or in etymology, but in the words that people speak, use and write every day. – jimsug Aug 4 '14 at 3:42

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