I came across this sample sentence in Oxford Dictionary,under the entry "spook":

They spooked a couple of grizzly bears.

I consulted an Oxford dictionary of English-Chinese edition, and it translates the sentence into "They frightened two grizzly bears".

Maybe OK but I am still not fully convinced it means only two bears in the sentence. Does "a couple of bears" necessarily mean two, or have a meaning of more than two in most cases? As to in this sample sentence, I would prefer to interpret it as "they frightened some grizzly bears"(maybe they weren't quite sure of or didn't notice the exact number).

Help me.

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    It's true that a couple of could mean "an indefinite small number." However, I think it's fair to translate it as "two". That is my default understanding, unless the context indicates otherwise. – Damkerng T. May 30 '14 at 1:38
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    @DamkerngT. A grizzly bear couple? (Wait, I think this is what confused the OP.) – Helix Quar May 30 '14 at 1:41
  • It suddenly occur to me that if "a couple" is used to refer certain people or things, it mostly tends to mean two; while used to refer words like "days","weeks","hours", it tends to mean 2 or 3, or even more than three. Agree? – dennylv May 30 '14 at 2:06
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    I have to say its only two. What you are saying is more like "a few". – user3169 May 30 '14 at 2:52
  • "a": 1, "a couple": 2, "a few": 3, "some": 4, "a handful": 5. Oftentimes these quantities also imply some room for error. – zzzzBov May 30 '14 at 3:04

I grew up thinking that a couple meant two.

They are a lovely couple. A sense of hope coupled with a sense of loss...

When ordering two of something, it is no longer annoying to me (unlike when I first moved away from home) to be asked, "How many?"

The first and most important definition of couple is two.

Two items of the same kind; a pair. (The American Heritage® Dictionary)(Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary)(many, many others)

A couple of grizzly bears is very unlikely to be three.

Synonyms: pair, two, brace, span (of horses or oxen), duo, twain (archaic), twosome There are a couple of police officers standing guard.

However, informally, it means a small number, usually two or three.

More than a couple is a few.

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A couple of is idiomatic (and less than formal) meaning an indefinite small number, but at least two. As you have noticed, some dictionaries will say this should be read as two exactly (1), but that does not reflect modern usage.

The assumption that it means two is because the idiom (a couple of) is etymologically related to, but semantically distinct from, the word couple, which means exactly two items paired together. You should read a couple of the same as a few of - more than one, but not very many (most likely not more than five).

Here are a couple of "modern" references: 1 (def. 14), 2, 3 (def. 2), 4.

If you want to express that there were exactly two grizzly bears together, the most common turns of phrase are a pair of grizzly bears and a grizzly bear couple. Using a synonym or alternate construction ensures there's no ambiguity between the literal use of couple and the idiom a couple of.

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A couple of means more than two, but that doesn't imply it's too much. More than two, but not too many. But it may also mean two of them. I think from the context you have to judge what it should mean.

Here is a dictionary entry for the definition of a couple of

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Example -

  1. It will take a couple of days for the package to get there.

  2. A dinner party, whether for a couple of old friends or eight new acquaintances, takes nearly the same amount of effort.

Usage Note -

The phrase a couple of, meaning “a small number of; a few; several,” has been in standard use for centuries, especially with measurements of time and distance and in referring to amounts of money: They walked a couple of miles in silence. Repairs will probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. The phrase is used in all but the most formal speech and writing.

Source - The Random House Dictionary

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  • So "a couple of" doesn't mean two according to this definition? – dennylv May 30 '14 at 1:48
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    @dennylv I understand. But as I said you have to judge how many from the context. I have consulted a few dictionaries. Everywhere it says either two or more than two but not many. – Man_From_India May 30 '14 at 1:50
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    Your answer makes me think that "a couple of something" cannot be "two" of that something. This is probably misleading. – Damkerng T. May 30 '14 at 1:51
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    @dennylv Maybe archically, but not in modern English, precisely because of confusion with the idiom. We'd say a pair of grizzly bears, a grizzly bear couple or (not very likely) a mated couple of grizzly bears to convey exactly two bears paired together. – Esoteric Screen Name May 30 '14 at 2:04
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    @dennylv: That people/timespans distinction isn't to do with the word couple itself - it's just that we're more likely to be using the more "vague" form (couple = a few, most likely 2 or 3 but probably no more than 4) with timespans. But I could reasonably say "I felt a bit awkward at the party because I only really knew a couple of people there" even if I actually knew 4 (or feasibly even more) people. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 30 '14 at 3:48

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