Monday, September 17, 2007

The Question of Usage

Is a couple a couple or is a couple a few? Are the two phrases synonymous? What say you?

Jolyn (my wife) and I have this ongoing debate over the meaning of the phrase, a couple. I believe that the phrases, a couple and a few, are synonymous. Why? One word: usage. I guess I'm just a usage kind of guy. To me, it doesn't really matter what a dictionary says. Language is created by culture and usage. People (including me) say a couple all the time when they are clearly speaking of a number larger than two. Jolyn claims that a couple means two and that a few means more than two. I disagree with her because her definition comes from the dictionary. The true meaning of a word is defined by how it is used, not by Mr. Webster. However, I do realize that my definition must include Jolyn's as well because she uses the phrases differently than me. Therefore, in terms of usage, a couple can mean two or more than two, depending on who's doing the talking.

Although the usage issue is more complex than my petty argument with Jolyn, our little debate is fun and interesting.

I just thought I should open this up for discussion.


Torben B said...

I have to side with Jolyn on this one :) I've always considered "a couple" two and "a few" more than three. Of course, I've never said I'm not a slave to convention ;)Or how about this: Technically Jolyn is correct, in terms of usage you are correct. Then again, if you ask me to grab a couple forks I'll grab two :)

rikker said...

In my book, usage governs meaning, so in your particular ideolect, a couple and a few are synonymous. I have no problem with that. But in all cases like this, prepare to be misunderstood if your ideolect doesn't align with your particular linguistic community. Not to say one or the other is right. Go somewhere else (or even talk to someone else) and you may find yourself in the majority.

Personally, a couple for me is usually a couple, but it has a shade of vagueness when used in the sense like, "oh, just hanging out with a couple of friends," when you're trying to make the number sound smaller than it is, or "I'm going to go pick up a couple of things at the store" to mean you're making a short shopping trip (and perhaps discouraging the wife to send you her shopping list). So, I tend to doubt that your usage is really identical, simply because even things we perceive as synonyms have different patterns of use that distinguish them. Do you have any intuition as to how you might be using them differently, if at all? Or are they actually interchangeable in every scenario you can imagine yourself saying them in?

Follow up question: what about "a few," "several" and "some"? I'd loosely classify "a few" as 3-5, "several" as maybe 4-10, and "some" as, I don't know, 3+. Don't quote me on that, it's just intuition. But fill in the blank in the phrase "I'm going out with ___ friends" with these different quantifiers and see what kind of numbers come to mind. How about "many"?

It's hard to pin down. Language is like that.

Andrew James said...

Thanks for the comments. Torben and Marissa came over tonight and we had a great discussion about this, due in large part to your wise response. I think you pretty much nailed it on the head. I do in fact use the phrases differently at times. However, I'm going to need to pay attention to the contexts in which I use them and I'll get back to you.

Scott Abbott said...

This question hit home. I was once denied promotion to full professor at BYU on the basis of a claim by the vice president that I had claimed in a meeting of the American Association of University Professors that several dozen BYU professors had left the university because of academic freedom questions. In the formal review they said that a couple would have meant 2 dozen, and that several dozen meant at least 3. I told them that given that definition, I was guilty, since I could only name 33, which is clearly not 36.