Couple : Several : A Few
January 1, 2006 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Several, couple, a few: occasionally, these words are used to indicate specific quantities of items (3, 2, and 4-5, respectively). Tell me about the etymology of these uses, and help me come up with more words (in English or other languages) that have this interesting specific/nonspecific duality.
posted by breath to Writing & Language (38 answers total)
I would say that "several" and "a few" don't ever properly indicate a specific number. My dictionary agrees. I would also say that several implies a greater quantity than a few. Could you cite an example of what you're talking about?
posted by LittleMissCranky at 3:18 PM on January 1, 2006

My version of them is: Couple = twoish, few = 2-4, several = 5-7.
posted by aubilenon at 3:21 PM on January 1, 2006

I would agree with LittleMissCranky in that these words do not seem to indicate a particular quantity. In my arbitrary thinking couple=2, few=3, several=4-8ish... but that's just me, and I'm sure other folks have different opinions.
posted by ruwan at 3:22 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: I don't have any example, I just remember when I was younger that there would be pedants who, when asked "gimme a few carrots" would assidiously count out exactly 4.

I guess my memory is pretty weak, because I misremembered the ordering. Thanks for correcting me, that's exactly what I was hoping for! New title: Couple < few>
I personally treat these words as exact synonyms of "some", never considering the implied quantities.
posted by breath at 3:30 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: heh heh, I guess the comment box isn't as tolerant of < as the title box is.
posted by breath at 3:31 PM on January 1, 2006

First time I ordered "a couple of slices" of pizza in Detroit, I expected and got two slices. My co-worker said "wait, how did you know you were going to get two?" which fairly boggled me. Apparently he knows of couples with more than two.

Couple = 2, few = 3-5, several = 5-8 (7 is the canonical "several" due to the similarity between "seven" and "several").
posted by kindall at 3:35 PM on January 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Couple means Two. It does not mean between two and four. It means two. When people say "I'll be a couple of minutes.", then it's equivalent to someone saying "I'll just be a minute." "a" does not have a dual purpose here, and neither does "couple".

The word couple probably has its etymology in marriage and the word copulate. A couple being two people who copulate. The "two of something" meaning probably came later.
posted by seanyboy at 3:41 PM on January 1, 2006

I may have that the wrong way round. Copulate and Couple almost certainly share the same root. Couple isn't based on copulate.
posted by seanyboy at 3:43 PM on January 1, 2006

Also... several and few
posted by seanyboy at 3:45 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for your input on couple. I definitely know people who use it as an indeterminate, meaning "more than one, but not much", but they may just be using it incorrectly.

The several and few links you have don't have any information about the implied quantities.
posted by breath at 3:59 PM on January 1, 2006

This is a huge topic in many languages. You count differently according to shape in Japanese, Slavic languages have fairly complex systems for counting things that come from having (or having had), a dual (2 of something) in addition to singular and plural nouns. For example in Russian you say 1 year (1 god) 2-4 goda. But you can't say 5 years, you would just say 5 summers, 5 let . Yet if you have no concret number, you just say gody.

There are things you can count in English (fingers, widgets) and things you cannot, or rather, usually don't (rice, fish, etc). A collective of something is dependant on the noun it modifies. You don't really say many rices, several waters, you generally interject something countable like grains of rice, <>drops/glasses/bodies of water.

I believe that some irregular plurals like men, children actually have something to do with old collective nouns, but I must admit, I don't know old English at all. Even in today's English there are irregular plurals that have very specific meanings, words like brethren, parliament of animals, bevy et cetera.

There are also just foreign plurals-- constoria, cirricula, etc.

It's always hard to see patterns in your own language, but rules for counting things are generally more complex than you realize.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:02 PM on January 1, 2006

Can there really be more than two things in a couple? That just doesn't make sense to me.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:05 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: Maybe it's a difference between a "couple of" things and a "couple" things?
posted by breath at 4:10 PM on January 1, 2006

Ok, a related question that comes up when lawyers talk: how about "numerous?" If I told someone something twice, did I tell it to him "numerous times?" How about "a number of times" -- could that mean twice?

I once had a witness use the word "several" to mean "about 190,000" so there is clearly some variability there.
posted by The Bellman at 4:17 PM on January 1, 2006

23skidoo: To me, it means 2. To the dictionary, it means 2. There's no need to call the language police. There is a colloquial usage of couple which means "few", but this is a new usage (in the last 20 years) which has yet to achieve a critical mass. I'd discount the "few" usage for this kind of conversation until it's in the dictionary as it may just be a fashionable blip on the language meter.

There are no implied quantities in several or few. For me the imagined quantities that go with several and few differ from situation to situation.

"There are a few spelling mistakes in the Bible"
"There were several wars in the 20th Century"

is an example where, in my head, the value implied by few is a lot more than the value implied by several.
posted by seanyboy at 4:17 PM on January 1, 2006

In the usage I'm familiar with, couple (usually) = several = a few. Some older or more traditional people treat couple as 2, though several and few remain roughly equivalent terms to mean "more than one, but probably less than a lot". I typically try to use couple to only mean two to avoid ambiguity -- though if I really mean two, I'd just say it, for the same reason. (Think about the pizza example above.)

I've never heard several and few defined as several (!) of you have.
posted by SuperNova at 4:20 PM on January 1, 2006

Not an origin or a definition, but a personal quirk: even when the exact quantity is known, I'll still use "several" to describe that quantity—unless the quantity is seven. Using "several" to describe seven objects seems silly.
posted by chrominance at 4:44 PM on January 1, 2006

23skidoo: Cool.
Also: Time to buy a newer dictionary.
Also: Time to buy a decent dictionary.
posted by seanyboy at 4:54 PM on January 1, 2006

In English, we usually just distinguish between one and more than one - thus the confusion about the terms you mentioned, I think. For us, they all just kind of vaguely indicate "not one, but not a lot, either." Some languages, however, grammatically indicate zero (nullar), two (dual), three (trial), and a few (paucal). Kinda leaves our singular/plural dichotomy in the dark. See this Wikipedia article for more on grammatical number.
posted by youarenothere at 4:55 PM on January 1, 2006

I wonder when it changed?
posted by seanyboy at 4:56 PM on January 1, 2006

I had no idea that "a couple of" something ever could be considered to be anything except two. And now I am in mourning.
posted by matildaben at 5:10 PM on January 1, 2006

If couple always equaled two than why not just ask for two? To me, if someone asked you for a couple of chips, wouldn't you think it odd to hand them only two?
posted by drezdn at 5:18 PM on January 1, 2006

If pair always equaled two than why not just ask for two? To me, if someone asked you for a pair of trousers, wouldn't you think it odd to hand them only one?
posted by seanyboy at 5:23 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: On a related note, I've been noticing that people will often use actual numbers as nonspecific indicators of quantity, for the purposes of hyperbole.

"he killed like a hundred guys out there!"
"that TV costs like a million dollars, dude"
"I've told you a thousand times..."
"There are only three people in the world who can do what I can do in bed"

I guess a preceding "like" indicates that the following number won't be a precise measure. And, of course, made-up words like "hojillion" are a good cue.
posted by breath at 5:24 PM on January 1, 2006

Response by poster: seanyboy, I think "pair" in that context has a special meaning (what the hell is a single trouser anyway?).

I'm speculating here, but I feel like "pair" also has the connotation of identicality between the two items: a pair of twins, a pair of dice. I would feel strange asking for a pair of beers, but wouldn't feel strange asking for a pair of Buds.
posted by breath at 5:28 PM on January 1, 2006

Some languages have a dual form which is used specifically to address two. For example in (rather proper) Arabic "a book" is "kitab(un)" two books is "kitabaan". So there's different forms for one, two and many. You don't need to say "Give me a couple of slices." You can say, "Give me slice (two)."

I think Ye Olde English had a dual form.
posted by raaka at 5:32 PM on January 1, 2006

Couple means more than two? Christ, another thing I have to give to descriptivism. I feel like one of those pre-PC oldies who struggle to keep in racially sensitive terms, but still use them internally.

Still, carry on all you people who use couple to mean more than one. Since you use it and are understood, it must be how language is used, polyamorous twits. grmph grgggl grrr.
posted by bonaldi at 5:32 PM on January 1, 2006

For me, "couple" means "two" but "two" doesn't always mean two. Neither "I'll be there in a couple of minutes" nor "I'll be there in two minutes" means I'll be there in exactly two minutes, so don't set your timer or anything. But "There are a couple of cookies left" means "There are two cookies left" which means there are exactly two cookies left, so don't eat both of them.
posted by TimeFactor at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2006

In my universe, few means three.

Other situations with similar specific/nonspecific applications are cooking terms where you can think of a pinch or a dash or, sometimes, a "glug" of something. This is an indefinite amount indicator, but most cooks know that they refer to more or less specific amounts, that a pinch is less than a dash, that a smidgen is less than a pinch &c (scan to the bottom of this page for more)
posted by jessamyn at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2006

I once asked for "a shitload" of fry sauce at a burger joint and got five containers. I guess that's about right.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:50 PM on January 1, 2006

For me, instictively, a couple is two, a few is five, and several is seven. -ish.

But I'm amazed there are people who don't know that "a couple" literally means "two".

That's the key difference between "a couple" and the other two. "A couple" has the literal meaning "two", but may sometimes be used loosely. The other two mean "an indeterminate number, roughly 5/7".

I just remember when I was younger that there would be pedants who, when asked "gimme a few carrots" would assidiously count out exactly 4.

This is some kind of false positive. That person wasn't a pedant, they were confused.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:53 PM on January 1, 2006

A couple is two. But a couple of minutes could be any reasonably short amount of time, just like a couple of chips could be a handful. e.g. "Can I have a couple of chips?" but I think a more likely request along those lines would be "Can I have some chips?", which begs the question: how many is a some?

A few is three. But again, a few minutes might end up being 5, just because people are slack. When people say they'll be 'a' minute, they usually don't really mean 'one', they just mean they won't be very long, possibly even less than one minute.

I think several is three as well. Perhaps a little less well defined than a few, it's certainly 2 or more, but not very many more.
posted by The Monkey at 8:20 PM on January 1, 2006

When I put a bit too much thought into the word couple, I decided that when people were asking for a couple of something in such a way as to ask for more than 2, they were using the word couplea which means roughly, a small amount.
posted by drezdn at 10:04 PM on January 1, 2006

drezdn, I think I know what you mean. In my example with the chips the couplea fits better than the couple. Though I'd suggest that the a is only smellable on pronunciation, and should be written invisibly.
posted by The Monkey at 10:22 PM on January 1, 2006

Breath, um, stole my breath - I've seen (and used) "like" to imply a feeling of a number that is extreme in that context, though the rate at which I've heard it spoken doesn't lead me to throw commas around the word, even though I think they should be there. Replace "like" in the context below with "about" and you can see what I mean:

"There were like ten million people in line" = It was a long, long line, maybe the longest line you've ever seen.

You wouldn't use "like" to describe a more normal-feeling number for the context; "there were like five people in line at the post office" sounds wrong, unless you were surprised by this fact - say it's three days before Christmas and you expected to be there for hours, or you're used to the post office being far less crowded - perhaps you've never seen another living soul there.

Great question.
posted by mdonley at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2006

Wow, I had no idea these three terms were so confusing. For me "a couple" = 2, "a few" = 3-7, "several" = 3-10ish. None of them have a definite quantity except "couple".

If someone asks for "a couple", I'd give them two. If they ask for "a few" I'd give them 4 or 5, or a handful. If they ask for "several" I know they're an alien.

Of course, "few" and "a few" are two different things. For example, "few people know how to build their own computers" means that only a small percentage of the global population know it, but "I know a few people who built their own computers" means I know somewhere around 3-7 such individuals.

This gets my vote for most confusing AskMe thread since the "grey and gray are two different colors" threads...
posted by mmoncur at 11:46 PM on January 1, 2006

Perhaps "couple" expands beyond "two" as a way of keeping a request modest while hoping for more. "Can I have a couple of chips?" leaves it up to the giver to decide how generous to be. If you're lucky, you'll get several.
posted by mono blanco at 5:46 AM on January 2, 2006

I think "a couple" can mean more than two, but with an implied exaggeration/minimization as the case may be. "If you want a Crossfire, you'd better buy one this month -- we only have a couple on the lot." Or the minutes example. Or "I didn't eat all the cookies -- I left a couple" could mean 1.5.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 AM on January 3, 2006

« Older Where to get wood for shelves online?   |   What's with this sentence structure? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.