Does "a couple" always mean two?

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Today I said some event was a couple of weeks away. A native speaker from Australia corrected me and said, no it's at least three weeks away. What followed was a discussion as to whether a couple always means two, or if it can mean more than two.

What does a couple, in particular a couple of weeks, mean to a native speaker?

According to wiktionary:

  1. Two partners in a romantic or sexual relationship.
  2. Two of the same kind connected or considered together.
  3. (informal) A small number.

According to OED:

  1. two people or things of the same sort considered together:
    'a couple of girls were playing marbles'
  2. [treated as singular or plural] two people who are married or otherwise closely associated romantically or sexually:
    'in three weeks the couple fell in love and became engaged'
    'a honeymoon couple'
  3. [informal] An indefinite small number

Yet my colleague — a native speaker — insists that a couple never means three, although there can be a small error bar on the two. We asked one other native speaker who agrees with him, yet three non-native speakers point at the above-mentioned sources to claim they're wrong. But it's a bit tricky for non-native speakers to claim native speakers are wrong. Note that both native-speakers are from Australia/New Zealand.

gerrit

Posted 2013-02-12T16:57:19.790

Reputation: 4 467

5

I've seen this question a couple of times. (Those four links should be enough information to reveal which side of the fence I sit on for this debate.) :^)

– J.R. – 2013-02-12T19:26:07.453

1I am German and had the same confusion about what a couple means. I was actually surprised that it means two in a context different from the romantic couple or similar. Because at least in German we use the equivalent to "a couple" almost always as: "some". Only in some very defined cases it means "two" like in the romantic couple or the "couple" of trousers or shoes (we do not distinguish pair and couple in German as far as I can tell). So it might be one of these false friends there for German speakers and it would make sense if the original meaning was "2". But nice to see that there seems – None – 2014-01-14T16:04:22.273

1@non-brit I think the capitalization resolves the issue in German though: "couple" as in "two" is a noun ("das Paar"). Hence "Ein Paar Schuhe" would be "two shoes", "Ein paar Schuhe" would be "A few/several shoes". – Frerich Raabe – 2014-02-05T11:18:58.703

Answers

62

Excellent question! The short (and rather unhelpful) answer is that while technically, "a couple" does in fact mean two, it is not always used that way in practice and if you ask several native speakers you're likely to get different responses.

"A couple", "a few", "several"... Words like this are used with various intent. In the particular case of "a couple of weeks" I'm (personally) likely to interpret that as 2-3 weeks away. In any other case where you use "a couple", it depends on the circumstances. I'll get a general idea of what you mean, but we won't necessarily have the same understanding of the situation.

Bob and Marie make a good couple.

Okay, that one's obvious. When you're talking about two people in a relationship as a "couple", clearly there are two of them.

I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

As I said before, this probably means 2, maybe 3 weeks (in my experience). I think this is probably the situation in which you're least likely to cause confusion, though obviously that's not always the case since someone corrected you!

These pretzels are delicious! Can I have a couple more?

Assuming these are snack-sized pretzels... Chances are I'm not just asking you for exactly two, right? Generally people use this to mean "give me some more of them" with "some" being indeterminate. The most common response would be to reach into the bag, grab whatever pretzels you would naturally get at a time, and give them to the person. Sometimes, just to be 'literal' and make a joke, I know people who will carefully count out two pretzels in this situation and give them to you. You'd give them a look, and then they'd give you more. So even native speakers are aware of this disparity, and can find humor in it.

If that's not enough, consider the following xkcd comic, where the author makes fun of the ambiguity of "a couple" and such words:

xkcd 1070

The author also adds mouseover text to his comic, which reads: "If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether "a couple" should always mean "two". As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree." ;)

So there isn't a simple answer for you, I'm afraid, but the answer is it's all very dependent on who you're talking to and how they interpret the word. If your friend corrected you then he has a different interpretation--but that doesn't mean you were wrong!

WendiKidd

Posted 2013-02-12T16:57:19.790

Reputation: 14 749

1And then there was my old Scout leader, a Tennessee native, who'd ask for "a coupla three minutes" while he finished his coffee. – choster – 2013-02-12T17:17:38.087

3@choster That's six minutes at a minimum, then? ;) – WendiKidd – 2013-02-12T17:19:43.313

@WendiKidd: I'd say that's a five-minute minimum: i.e., "a couple and three". It all depends whether that a in "coupla" is short for "and" or "of". :^) – J.R. – 2013-02-12T19:19:36.990

5@J.R. In my world it's "couple or". – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-12T19:25:19.477

@StoneyB: Ah! Two-minute minimum, then. This projected wait time is getting shorter by the minute. – J.R. – 2013-02-12T19:28:32.647

@J.R. and StoneyB Aha! Suppose the scout leader was trying to teach them a lesson on verbal ambiguity? ;) – WendiKidd – 2013-02-12T20:52:57.707

3"A couple" always conveys the impression that as few as 2 is a possibility – even if this is done ironically, or for humorous effect. If the intention is to exclude 2 as a possibility, a different word should be selected. – Bill Michell – 2013-02-13T00:26:55.953

21

Sure, if you ask a native speaker How many is "a couple"?, he'll almost certainly answer "Two".

But he might expand on that answer by saying...

"There are one or two exceptions, for example..."
1: I have a couple of beers most Friday nights (might actually be three or more on average).
2: The police just want to ask you a couple of questions (very likely to be more than two).
3: We still have a couple of problems to sort out before we can issue an update. (Yeah, yeah!)

I shall be miffed if anyone downvotes this answer because I've given three exceptions! It's perfectly normal to use a couple and one or two in this way, when the number is still relatively small, and you wish to downplay the significance of even the few that exist.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-02-12T16:57:19.790

Reputation: 52 587

2If your wife says, "I'll be ready in a couple of minutes", that almost certainly is not an assurance that she will be ready within 120 seconds. – Jay – 2015-03-26T13:47:42.203

@Jay: YMMV, but if my daughter texts that she'll call me for a chat "in a couple of minutes" (she's very dexterous, and really does spell out whole expressions like that! :) I can usually expect a call within the next half-hour. On the other hand, if she says "in a few minutes", it's likely to be at least an hour or two (as opposed to "soon", which basically means "perhaps tomorrow, but don't hold your breath"). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-03-26T14:50:11.440

8Just a couple exceptions to keep in mind, then? ;) +1 – WendiKidd – 2013-02-13T01:59:23.873

@WendiKidd: Couple or three, as choster's Scout leader and I would have it. Mebbe four or more. It's the exception that proves the rule, so the more the merrier! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-02-13T02:08:55.690

18

A couple is literally two; but it is often used as in the neighbourhood of two.

I have the impression that it is used loosely only when an approximation is in play. That is, you can say

  • a couple of days, meaning two days, give or take some hours
  • a couple of weeks meaning two weeks, give or take a few days
  • a couple of dozen, meaning two dozen, give or take six or eight.

But if you say “Hey, I’ve got a couple tickets to the game; anybody want to go?”, nobody will think you might have three, because tickets are indivisible.

Rule of thumb? —If it rounds to two, a couple is fine. Otherwise, you may confuse your auditors.

There is also the idiom a couple-three or a couple-four—meaning two or three, two or four—which gives you a larger range with correspondingly increased vagueness. You can extend this—“I need a couple-twelve days to finish the job”—but this will be received as distinctly jocular.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-02-12T16:57:19.790

Reputation: 176 469

I had a teacher in junior high, like 40 years ago who would often say "a couple of three" to mean "two or three or maybe possibly a larger but still small number". The class all found it very amusing. I've never heard anyone else use it that I recall. – Jay – 2015-03-26T13:45:49.250

Is couple-N (such as couple-three, couple-four) an Americanism? I've never heard it used in BE. I think we'd normally ask for two-dozen eggs. – Matt – 2013-02-12T19:11:41.290

@Matt Couple-N is a degraded form of a couple or N, not a multiple. I'll fix. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-12T19:14:00.510

Ok. That said, I think a learner would be well advised to stay away from such constructions, as they aren't particularly common. – Matt – 2013-02-12T19:20:56.827

It's pretty common over here; choster mentions it in a Comment to WendiKidd's post. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-12T19:24:35.453

1I've never hear couple-N ever (in the US). It's understandable (sort of) but sounds like this one guy just happens to say it that way. – Mitch – 2013-02-12T20:35:45.903

2@Mitch I'm very surprised to hear you say that; I hear 'couple three' all the time, and have since I was a kid. "Hand me a couple three more sixpennies, will you?" – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-12T21:02:34.910

OK. Interesting. What's a sixpenny? That sounds British to me. Is that where you're hearing it? What subvariety are you used to? – Mitch – 2013-02-12T23:17:43.707

@Mitch- It's a size of nail. 6d is about 2" long. http://free-ed.net/free-ed/Resources/Trades/carpentry/Building01/default.asp?iNum=0205

– Jim – 2013-02-13T04:35:06.473

1From Oz: couple-three, couple-six, couple-ten: not ever in my experience. Couple-dozen, couple-hundred, couple-thousand: used enough to be understood without query (and by extension, but less common: couple-million etc). I would've interpreted @choster's Scout Leader as saying 'couple or three' – mcalex – 2013-02-13T05:34:15.197

Upvoted the answer for mentioning quantifiability of the object but I've never heard or read the idiom much like my fellow commenters. Maybe this answer could get more upvotes if the (regional) idiom were removed. – Donbhupi – 2017-08-06T07:50:20.890

As an American, I've never heard of the 'couple-#' construction. I'd say it's not an Americanism, but rather some dialect for a region. I'm not sure where the couple people who have mentioned it's use are from. – Doc – 2014-01-14T21:52:15.307

1@Doc FWIW, I grew up in East Alabama. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-01-14T23:18:31.923