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Earlier today I started to type a message and I entered:

I can take a couple of hours...

After entering the text, I realized that I intended to express roughly three hours so I highlighted and replaced the word "couple" with "few".

The resulting statement, before further edits, was:

I can take a few of hours...

Being that I am an American and English is my primary language, I paused for a moment to consider this phrasing of the second statement. It is completely wrong and feels awkward but I have no clue why.

To further confound the problem "a few of" is not always improper wording. Consider "I will take a few of them." In this context, "few of" is correct and, simply, "few" is wrong?!

The similarities and nuances of the words "couple" and "few" have been frequently discussed, even here on English.SE. Even after reading a few questions relating to these words on this site, it has always been my working assumption that these words have the same general meaning, except a couple is a relative quantity of two while a few was a relative quantity of three or a few more (pun intended.)

What is the nuance difference between these two words, in light of the above context?

  • Interesting question. Might it make a difference that (per comments arising on “There are a couple of apples” or “there is a couple of apples”?) sometimes a couple can be treated as a singular noun, and sometimes as a plural? – FumbleFingers Oct 22 '14 at 20:26
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    As regards few, it seems not to require of with nouns - a few people, a few apples, a few thoughts etc. The of comes in with pronouns, both object pronouns - a few of them, and possessives a few of her lovely mince pies. A grammarian like John Lawler or Edwin Ashworth may be able to explain this. But could it not simply be idiomatic, just as some French verbs take de, some take à, and some take no preposition at all. – WS2 Oct 22 '14 at 21:00
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    @WS2 Note also the growing trend in some but hardly all dialects for dropping the of even with couple, so for instance having a couple friends stop by. – tchrist Oct 23 '14 at 4:14
  • @tchrist I think that sort of omission occurs with a lot of prepositions in everyday speech. The other point about couple, however is that it also exists as a noun - the couple sitting in the corner are my parents. Is the of, employed with apparent adjectival use, there because couple is essentially a noun? – WS2 Oct 23 '14 at 6:43
  • Hey guys, thank you all for your comments. I was aware that of is becoming less and less common in modern English. Still, I don't think it have ever been appropriate to use the word of, as in my example above. We must get to the bottom of this. :) – RLH Oct 23 '14 at 11:19
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There are two differences between "hours" and "them". "Hours" is an ordinary noun, and hours are usually indefinitely divisible. (An "hours" in the context of a "one hour appointment" is a discrete, countable noun, however.) "Them" is a pronoun, and stands for discrete, countable items. There's room for a third category in this discussion: ordinary nouns for discrete, countable items – "cookies", for example.

  • A couple of hours connotes a time period of about two hours, maybe one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours.
  • A few hours is more vague; its meaning depends on context.
  • A couple of cookies is very concrete: it's two cookies.
  • A few cookies is also vague (and in the case of cookies, probably prone to rationalization).
  • A couple of them refers to two specific items; which items are implied by context.
  • A "few of them" refers to a small, indeterminate number of specific items.

So why a few hours or a few cookies, but a few of them? That brings to mind a fourth possible category: specific cookies. Although "a few cookies" is correct and "a few of cookies" is wrong, "a few of the cookies" is correct.

So, what's the conclusion? I think "a few of" must refer to a small number of items from a specific collection of items.

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    In addition to efficiently explaining the differences, I am thinking that this answer could further benefit from the comment left on the question by @WS2 - which might address the uncertainty that you have in the last few statements. – bPratik Oct 22 '14 at 22:50
  • Thank you for this analysis. This is pretty thorough, and I'm willing to give you an upvote, however, since this answer is a little speculative based off of linguistic observation, I'm going to have to withhold an answer mark. – RLH Oct 23 '14 at 11:18
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"Few" is a determiner, i.e. it directly modifies nouns- "few people, a few mishaps," etc. "Couple", however, is a noun, so you need to specify what it is a couple of. "A couple of my coworkers, a couple of them," etc. Interestingly, in my colloquial dialect, it's become common to say "a couple [noun]", dropping the "of". Hope this helps.

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