Q: I grew up believing that a “few” was three and a “couple” was two. But I just looked them up and found no mention of three in the definitions of “few,” and “more than two” as a meaning of “couple.” Can you give these words a firm meaning? I don’t like it that a word can mean different things to different people.
A: When someone asks you to lend him “a few dollars,” he could mean almost any amount. And when he says he’ll repay you in “a couple of days,” don’t mark a date on your calendar.
Your question can’t be answered definitively, because “few” is ambiguous as far as its specific number, and “couple” can also be inexact.
Let’s begin with “few.” It was first seen in written English back as the 800s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. From the beginning, it has meant “not many” or “amounting to a small number.”
When “few” appears without a preceding word like “a” or “some,” the OED says, it implies the opposite of “many.”
But in phrases like “a few” or “some few,” according to the dictionary, it implies the opposite of “none at all.”
As examples of the two usages, the OED cites these constructions: “few, or perhaps none,” and “a few, or perhaps many.”
There are several idiomatic variations on this theme. “A good few” means “a fair number,” and “quite a few” and “not a few” both mean “a considerable number.”
But to make a long story short, “few” has never been restricted to meaning three.
Now on to “couple,” which is not nearly as flexible as “few.” The OED indicates that “couple” was first recorded as a verb around 1225, when it meant “to conjoin in thought or speech.”
The noun “couple” originally meant “a pair” or “a union of two.” It was derived from the Latin copula, meaning a tie or a connection, and was first recorded in writing about 1300 in reference to a man and woman united in marriage.
But lest this seem too romantic, we should mention that at the same time, the verb “couple” meant to “yoke,” as in to connect a horse to a cart.
And the noun was used shortly thereafter to mean two animals of the opposite sex (c. 1325) and a brace holding two hounds together (c. 1340).
By the late 14th century, “couple” (generally followed by “of”) was being used to mean two of anything. The OED has no entries that would define “couple” as meaning other than two. But many standard dictionaries and usage guides do.
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says that while “couple” has traditionally meant a pair, “in some uses, the precise number is vague. Essentially, it’s equivalent to a few or several. In informal contexts this usage is quite common and unexceptionable.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines this sense of the word as “an indefinite small number” or “few.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes the definition “a few; several” as “informal,” but goes on to say this:
“Modern critics have sometimes maintained that a couple of is too inexact to be appropriate in formal writing. But the inexactitude of a couple of may serve a useful purpose, suggesting that the writer is indifferent to the precise number of items involved. Thus the sentence She lives only a couple of miles away implies not only that the distance is short but that its exact measure is unimportant. This usage should be considered unobjectionable on all levels of style.”
We mentioned above that “couple” is generally followed by “of.” If you’d like to read more about this, we had a blog item a while back about whether the “of” is really necessary.
The posting cites this comment from American Heritage: “The of in the phrase a couple of is often dropped in speech, but this omission is usually considered a mistake, especially in formal contexts.”
Although three-fourths of the American Heritage Usage Panel found “a couple books” unacceptable, a fifth of the panel said it was OK in informal speech and writing.
In case you’re interested, we once wrote about another inexact term, “several.” Like “few” and “couple,” you can’t pin “several” down. In other words, it all depends.
We’re sorry if the inexactness of this answer disappoints you. But thanks for raising an interesting subject.