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I would write a couple of . I often read/hear a couple .

I assumed this was an American English thing (I'm British), and just a convenient shortening of the phrase for speaking. It's easier to say a couple minutes vs a couple of minutes.

On a side note, this doesn't seem to restrict the number of things to two, but just a small amount–less than a few, in my mind.

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Because people are lazy. –  Jay Aug 20 '12 at 20:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The Linguist List thread that @cori linked to has a couple discussions of what’s going on here. For example, one commenter says:

couple is coming into the English list of indefinite numbers, just below few. … If couple with this meaning is new in the language, I suspect that it is picking up the grammar of the semantically adjacent word few.

I did a search in the Corpus of Historical American English for A COUPLE OF [N*] and for A COUPLE [N*], to search for incidences of these two idioms ([N*] means some kind of noun).

COHA chart showing incidences of A COUPLE OF vs A COUPLE since 1910

From these results, we see that A COUPLE OF is much more common than A COUPLE, although it should be noted that there are incidences of A COUPLE [N*] dating all the way back to 1820 in the corpus. Interestingly, both terms have been on the rise throughout the twentieth century, and the ratio between them has been decreasing, meaning that A COUPLE [N*] is becoming relatively more common.

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any explanations to the dramatic decline @1980? –  Louis Rhys Apr 18 '11 at 5:59
    
Great answer but I suspect written English is different from spoken English in this case. –  Apprentice Queue Mar 27 '12 at 6:17
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A natural progression of this will mean that in a couple hundred years we will be saying a lot things incorrectly. –  Alan Gee Oct 18 '12 at 19:17
    
@Alan they will only be "incorrect" to people who are already dead, much as many things that are correct in English today would be incorrect to English speakers from hundreds of years ago. –  nohat Oct 19 '12 at 1:22
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Being against the evolution of languages is like being against the passage of time. No one's opinion is relevant—it's happening whether you like it or not. And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum and to rihtre woroldlage. –  nohat Oct 19 '12 at 18:22

I think what we often hear and what may not show up well in a corpus is "coupla".

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I tried hearing it as coupla for the first 20 or 30 times, but you can't get round it: people are saying 'couple' where 'coupla' might make more sense. –  Dominic Cronin Dec 5 '13 at 21:57

I hear both more or less interchangeably here in the US Midwest, and recall that to be the case in the US Appalachian Region where I grew up.

Personally I wouldn't use the abbreviated version in any sort of formal context, but in daily speech I use both.

Also, while I generally try to use "couple" to mean two, I wonder if the shortened form is related somehow to the relaxation of that rule, and to the fact that when one is considering "a few" it's not "a few of" ("She lives a few miles from here" vs "She lives a few of miles from here" vs "She lives a couple of miles from here"). Perhaps with the blurring of the lines between "couple" and "few" the surrounding structure also changed.

EDIT

Here's an interesting thread regarding possibly origins of the difference.

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