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What does “a couple” mean to you, and what does “a few” mean to you? Is there a proper way to use it?

It was striking to hear that “a couple” meant two (2) to someone. My reaction was, “how/why do you make a short word longer by adding an extra syllable to just say ‘two?’”

I think Few: 2-3, Couple 4-6, Several 7+. What are your thoughts?

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Word size has nothing to do with what the word is describing. Take infinitesimal for example. –  Dan Aug 24 '10 at 19:51
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I don't think he meant that the word length should correspond to the quantity, but rather than it was longer than the word 'two', so why prefer the longer word if they always mean the same thing. (The answer is that there are lots of synonyms in English and our preferences in any given context are not usually related to the length of the word.) –  Larry Gritz Jan 14 '11 at 2:28
    
Reading the acknowledgements section of C# in depth by Jon Skeet brought me here. There's a passage that says: "... have met up with him a couple of times, both of which ...". So, if he's as knowledgeable in english as he's in C#, I'd consider this the killer argument ;-) Previously, I also thought "a couple" means definetly more than two if not used in conjunction with "married". –  takrl Jun 30 '11 at 15:31
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xkcd.com/1070 –  Brian Nixon Jun 30 '12 at 23:00
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Agreed - "couple" is pretty commonly accepted as 2 of something. I've always thought of 3+ as "a few" (maybe 3-5), and 6+ as "several", 6 being the delineating mark because it also happens to be "half a dozen", which to me is similar to "several". –  Joel Glovier May 24 '13 at 2:18
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11 Answers 11

Couple means 2; few means 3, and several means "four or more."

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You might want to add some punctuation to this - I initially read it as "One couple is equal to two fews, or three or more severals," and nearly down-voted this answer as a result. –  user867 May 24 '13 at 7:00
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Couple is used to mean an indefinite small number in informal sentences, while few means a small number of.

Michael hoped Angie would be better in a couple of days.

We got some eggs. Would you like a couple?

I will recount a few of the stories told me.

Many believe it but only a few are prepared to say.

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  • couple: Two, joined, or together.
  • pair: Two, matched.
  • brace: Two, captured.

  • several: More than one.

  • few: More than one, but less than many
  • many: a high number compared to what might be expected
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These words only add value to English because they are vague; if that were not the case, English would need only the cardinals to represent quantities.

A vague term, by definition, has no discrete boundary between itself and its coordinate term (its semantic neighbour). The gradated boundaries of vague terms make them uniquely efficient: Consider that a vague term conveys more information than a range of values conveys. Where a range represents a series of values, a vague term represents a set of continual (non-discrete) values; the greater the difference between the most prototypical value in the set and any other value in the set, the less prototypical that value will be. For example, a subject is concieved to be less 'bald', the less his scalp resembles Patrick Stewart's scalp.

Precisely representing a vague term requires many more words or much more notation than defining a range requires. So vague terms are semantically economical.

In short, I think it's best to conceive terms such as 'several', 'couple', and 'few' to be overlapping value-ranges with no discrete boundary between any two of them.

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"Couple" and "Pair" add value not because they are vague - they are not - but because they are more specific than the cardinal two. A couple is two which are together. A pair is two which match. –  Ben May 24 '13 at 12:17
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Yes, I agree - 'couple' and 'pair' are precise terms, not ranges. Although I believe that the word 'couple' possesses a measure of vagueness when it's used casually: two is its ideal referent, and three is an acceptable referent but not an ideal one. –  Hal May 24 '13 at 13:27
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I always think of a couple as two. Few is three or more.

Think of couple in other contexts. Relationships, for example. We call two lovers a couple. We call three a party.

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I've never encountered anybody who thinks that "couple" doesn't even begin until 4! The word literally means 2, though there are many people (myself included) who accept a little ambiguity. If you say "I'll call you back in a couple days" and you call tomorrow, or in three days, I won't be angry.

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Oxford defines 'couple' as

two individuals of the same sort considered together

The first three definitions for 'couple' in Merriam-Webster also refer to two of something. The fourth definition they offer, is the 'few' definition.

The informal usage of 'couple' to mean 'few' is something that I consider to be incorrect, although I've no real basis for that belief. I'd be very interested in the history of the word, and whether this latter meaning is something that has arisen lately, or something that has historical rooting.

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I think Few: 2-3, Couple 4-6, Several 7+. What are your thoughts?

Definitely not. Couple is certainly fewer than few.

Pair: Two which go together, a matching couple.

Couple: Often used with roughly the same definition as pair, with some specific idioms, such as the happy couple (newlyweds). Sometimes used just to mean two, any two, not necessarily a pair. Sometimes, informally, used to mean few.

Few: A smallish group. There were a few washers in the bottom of the screw drawer.

Very few: A small number, smaller than expected. More than two, though.

Few enough: A small group, probably but not necessarily smaller than expected. Still more than two. "So was it a big crowd?" "Nah, there were few enough of us."

Quite a few: Several, more than expected. There were quite a few people at the party. It was a fair[-sized] crowd.

Several: A large number, but not necessarily larger than expected.

I'd rarely use the word few on its own. It would almost always be very few or quite a few.

For what it's worth, I'm Irish, with English parents, and listen to more BBC Radio 4 than anything else.

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Good stuff, but: 'the happy couple' is not an idiom; 'couple' is simply a noun in its own right, and the use as a phrasal noun modifier ('a couple of') was likely derived from it. I don't think calling 'several' a 'large number' is accurate; for instance, the American Heritage dictionary defines 'several' as "Being of a number more than two or three but not many" - education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/several –  mklement Dec 12 '12 at 20:14
    
@mklement. The phrase "the happy couple" does not apply to any two people who happen to be happy. It refers specifically to newlyweds. Therefore, the meaning of the phrase cannot be directly inferred from the meanings of the component words. As such, it qualifies as an idiom. –  TRiG Dec 12 '12 at 20:26
    
Fair point, my bad - I misread your statement as saying that the use of 'couple' as a noun in its own right was idiomatic. –  mklement Dec 12 '12 at 20:53
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Off topic, I suppose, but I never associated "happy couple" with newly weds. In fact the first google hit for the phrase reference couples of any age. –  JoeTaxpayer Feb 2 '13 at 4:14
    
@JoeTaxpayer. Really? I get wedding photography and "premarital relationship workshops for happily engaged or newlywed couples". –  TRiG Feb 2 '13 at 4:39
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I have used a couple to mean two or three, several to mean 3+ and few to mean -3 or any number that emphasizes something smaller than expected. "There were only a few people" can easily mean twenty when a hundred were expected.

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We discussed this in a linguistics course I took in college. I was astonished to learn that some people distinguish "several" and "a few". My professor was astonished that some people would think they were the same.

For some people, "a few" and "several" are synonymous, with neither one meaning more than the other, but for others, "several" is more than "a few". Both "a few" and "several" are more than "a couple", which means two or about two.

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Er, yes. For me, "a couple" < "a few" < "several" < "many". In fact, I think I've used "several" as a synonym for "many" on at least one occasion! (There's also "multiple", but it feels awkward sometimes.) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 31 '10 at 1:12
    
Personally, I've always thought of "few," "several," and "couple" as interchangeable and used them that way. –  emodendroket Jun 5 at 15:03
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A couple is usually two (a married couple), or sometimes 'about two' if you are being vague (a couple of dozen, a couple of inches). A few is more than a couple, but not as many as several.

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+1; definitely agree. I'd regard "a couple of <things>" as usually meaning "2 or 3 <things>". –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 24 '10 at 20:08
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@cindi I'd have said that couple is the range from 1.5 -> 2.5; although it's only ever used in the context of integers. –  Rowland Shaw Sep 4 '10 at 7:11
    
Grammatically, the use of 'couple' in 'a married couple' is distinct from 'a couple of', which, I suspect, has allowed the meanings to diverge (use as head of a phrase vs. as phrasal noun modifier). I assume by 'about two' you mean 'two or more' (with the 'more' constituting the vague part). As such, there is overlap between 'couple of' (in the looser sense) and 'few'. –  mklement Dec 12 '12 at 20:06
    
+1, I was looking for this answer. "About two" makes sense to me –  Stat-R Feb 17 '13 at 2:49
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protected by simchona May 24 '13 at 0:38

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