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Can anyone tell me the difference between pairs or couples?

Especially I need to know if you say "a pair of puffins" or "a couple of puffins" if you mean a female and male bird.

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  • Technically, a pair just means two birds, not even a male and a female. See this article for more precise terminology related to birds, specifically cockatiels.
    – JLG
    Aug 5, 2013 at 21:15
  • 3
    Is this a married couple, or just two random birds hanging out?
    – tchrist
    Aug 5, 2013 at 23:03
  • @JLG my understanding is quite the opposite. A pair is matched but a couple is just two random penguins. Of course a couple plain and simple is two people going out.
    – Mitch
    Aug 5, 2013 at 23:11
  • @Mitch, I didn't comment on the word couple at all because I don't think it usually applies to birds. Yes, a couple would also mean two birds, not necessarily mates.
    – JLG
    Aug 6, 2013 at 0:07
  • Thank you. I've especially wanted to know what to call two puffins.
    – Unrelated
    Dec 11, 2016 at 3:27

7 Answers 7

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The usual term for a male and female bond is a pair not couple.

Speaking casually, "I saw a pair/couple of puffins the other day" would mean you'd seen two birds, of either sex.

As a verb, birds are said to pair, meaning male and female bonding for the purpose of rearing chicks. But to couple means to engage in sexual intercourse.

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  • 1
    If they have been verified as mates, they're called a mated pair. Aug 5, 2013 at 22:36
  • Opinion without support.
    – David
    May 7, 2018 at 18:37
  • For birds, 'a pair' implies bonding, while it's 'a couple' for humans. However, 'A pair of sparrows' would be at least slightly unusual, probably implying they were together if not a bonded pair, while 'a couple of sparrows' is totally idiomatic. This just means two sparrows. 'We recorded a couple of sparrows and over a hundred pigeons during the day.' Jul 27, 2021 at 18:52
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In my experience pair of means 2 and couple of means 2 or more.

A pair of puffins

This would be 2 puffins.

A couple of puffins

This would be 2 or a few (small number of) puffins.

What I think you want to say is a puffin couple.

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  • Birds are said to develop pair bonds. I don't think they would ever be called a couple. You could say they were a puffin breeding pair.
    – JLG
    Aug 5, 2013 at 21:23
  • I used swans as my guide, who are also paired for life, although they are called both swan pair and swan couple the later is used more frequently. Google Trends Aug 5, 2013 at 22:18
  • How does couple mean "two or more"? It may be used loosely in that sense when spoken (and when intonation can convey the meaning), but I question whether it would normally be used in writing to mean "a few".
    – TrevorD
    Aug 5, 2013 at 22:42
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    Merriam-Webster says an indefinite small number couple Aug 5, 2013 at 22:44
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    Sure, the word couple is often casually used to mean a few. As for Trevor's comment, I wonder, where does the O.P. specify that this is for formal writing? It could be a sixth grader talking about a trip to the zoo, in which case "I saw a couple of puffins" could refer to a male and female bird, or it could mean some arbitrarily small number of the birds.
    – J.R.
    Aug 5, 2013 at 22:48
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The key here is word order and context, not word choice. If you look at the definitions of both words at dictionary.com (pair and couple), you'll find they actually use the other word in the definition. So instead of saying pair of, or couple of puffin, which could imply two non-related, you need to say a puffin pair or a puffin couple, which does imply relationship.

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In American, we typically use the term couple to identify things that are part of a relationship but not necessarily the same.

For example My wife and I are a married couple. Just saying "They are a couple" implies that they are 2 people engaged in a romantic relationship.

Pair is usually used to describe single items with 2 parts such as a pair of scissors (with 2 blades) or a pair of pants (with 2 legs).

Where things get strange (for me at least) is that pair can also be used to describe things that are grouped because they are the same. i.e A pair of jacks.

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A couple can mean two completely different components (eg. male and female humanbeings, or two different metals, say nickel and copper) together creating a new value, for instance a family or a thermocouple, a device that measures temperature, consisting of two metals with properties no single component represents. A pair on the other hand represents two identical components: a pair of gloves, shoes, students (from the POV of their teacher they are the same)

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It appears that the difference may keep you out of jail:

Then we need more waiver of technicalities. In some states the escape from punishment of men convicted of crime has been notably based upon the most absurd of technicalities. For example, one thief in Delaware escaped his just desserts [sic] because he was indicted for stealing a "pair" of shoes and it was proven that both shoes he took, by his own miscalculation, were "right"...

The New Jersey Law Journal (1913)

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“I saw a couple pairing” would seem a preliminary to “I saw a pair coupling” (and more suitable for family reading).

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  • Interesting, but OP is obviously asking about the nouns. Jul 27, 2021 at 18:48
  • @EdwinAshworth And not recently either. Sorry, I’m rather uncoupled from things.
    – David
    Jul 27, 2021 at 19:14

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