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What is the proper way to use the terms “a couple” or “a few”?

How should one use these words to avoid confusion? How do people use these words in practice.

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?’”

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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.) 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 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". May 24 '13 at 2:18

12 Answers 12

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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>". 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. Sep 4 '10 at 7:11
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    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
  • This answer is so correct precisely because of its vagueness. Any hard-and-fast numerical assignment to the words will fail, because these words are used deliberately for their flexibility. If I say "I have several emails to respond to", then I either don't know how many exactly, or it doesn't matter to my audience, but based on the context of "emails", you get a rough idea of between 5 and 20. Contrastingly, "I have several classes to teach today" might mean between 4 and 6, due to the different context. But the common theme is that the exact number is irrelevant.
    – 6005
    Jan 24 '18 at 19:06
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    My English teacher, who is originally from New York, told me that "a few" only refers to 2 or 3, but not more, and that you should use the word "several" to refer to more items. I was shocked of it, because I'd always used the word "few" to describe any small number, maybe up to 10. Maybe the meanings of those words have different nuances in different regions? Maybe it's related to the fact of east-coast people are usually more punctual? May 23 at 10:52
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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
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    @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. Feb 2 '13 at 4:14
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    @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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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.) Aug 31 '10 at 1:12
  • Personally, I've always thought of "few," "several," and "couple" as interchangeable and used them that way.
    – Casey
    Jun 5 '14 at 15:03
  • Several and a few are different to me, though they can often be used to describe the same thing. If you are talking about, say, six people or things, both a few and several are perfectly usable; but a few indicates that you don’t really care how many exactly there are, just that there aren’t that many, while several indicates that there are quite a few, at least according to what you might have expected. For example, if ten students take an exam and three people fail, “a few people failed” would, to me, indicate that you think the exam was difficult (since you don’t consider → Jul 6 '15 at 17:30
  • → a 30% fail rate to be a strikingly high number), while “several people failed” would indicate you think it was an easy exam (since the same 30% fail rate feels like a lot to you). So what they refer to is basically the same, but they betray different attitudes in the speaker towards what they modify. Jul 6 '15 at 17:31
  • A few people distinguish "some" and "several"
    – Conrado
    Apr 12 '20 at 13:56
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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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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 conceived 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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To add to the already excellent qualitative answers, one can do a quantitative analysis, asking people a number that one might apply to each. Such an experiment has been done:

comparison of numbers evoked by vague counting words

(note the sparsely labeled and logarithmic x-axis: 10^0 = 1, 10^1 = 10, 10^2 = 100, so 2 and 3 are between 10^0 and 10^1)

There are several (or is it 'a few'?) caveats:

  • This doesn't include all the possible vague amount words, such as 'few' or 'much' or 'a handful'.
  • The number of instances is 46.
  • The sample is from a reddit subgroup (very self-selected)
  • The answers are biased by the question which is 'What is the number for the following) biasing towards numbers that are in order of the words ('some' is presented before 'several' so might be expected to have lower number).

But the numbers aren't too terribly different from native introspection given by the other qualitative questions.

A note about quantification. The explicit denotations and connotations of words are only attempts by our self-conscious linguistic selves to reflect on our unconscious linguistic behavior (we are fluent and natural in using language but using language to describe language use and thought is a difficult and complicated skill. Humans have been speaking for tens of thousands of years but only in the past few thousand have we developed a good way of discussing numbers (using digits and arithmetic).

The vague terms do not necessarily map directly onto a total/linear order. 'A few' and 'some' may apply to roughly the same numerical value but only when shoe-horned into a linear scale. The meanings of those words are much more complex. 'A couple' is literally 'two' but is often used equivocally for nearby values, and may have many dimensions of nuance: intentionally vague, intentionally exact, strictly more than one, strictly two or less, two people who are romantically involved with a sense of permanence, and many others. And 'couple' is the least vague of these.

This is all to say that quantification can oversimplify the breadth of meaning of a word.

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

  • several: More than one, separate.

  • few: More than one, but less than many
  • many: a high number compared to what might be expected
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  • To my mind, and googling dictionaries, several is more than two (but less than many). I would not consider two things to be several.
    – Drew
    Jul 7 at 15:40
  • @Drew When I think of "several people" the number I imagine is seven, probably homophony. Nonetheless, "several" has a specific meaning, per the OED "Existing apart, separate". In e.g. law "joint and several" applied to obligations which fall on two or more persons each of whom may be held fully responsible. So two is the minimum for "several".
    – Ben
    Jul 7 at 16:21
  • I won't argue ;-). This may be British vs American usage; dunno. But as for joint and several meaning 2 or more: joint means 2, right? (It might even mean 2 or more in some contexts; dunno.) Joint and several describes two cases to be covered: (1) joint and (2) several, no? That joint and several might mean 2 or more doesn't imply that several means 2 or more. And of course legal jargon doesn't prescribe other usage.
    – Drew
    Jul 7 at 16:39
  • @Drew No. Joint means joined together. Can be two or more, up to any number. Several means separately. Can be two or more, up to any number. Joint and several liability means you can be sued together or separately.
    – Ben
    Jul 8 at 10:49
  • Regardless. Legal terminology is not general usage. In general usage, in my experience, "several" is just a vague count, and it never means two. The things referred to are of course necessarily separate, since countable. Two people are not several people, in general parlance (IME, American usage). I can't imagine you'd find many (likely not any) American English speakers who would use "several" to include the possibility of only two. (Even three is a stretch - "few" is more likely for that case.)
    – Drew
    Jul 8 at 15:54
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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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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