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The one and the many

We appear to have rattled a few readers with a secondary headline that said: “Millionaire Maryland couple don't judge themselves by how much wealth they've accrued but by how many people they've been able to help.” Some found the syntax a little lumpy, but others complained about using couple as a plural.

If we had used couple as a singular, no doubt there would have been complaints about that, particularly since its would then have been the appropriate pronoun.

Collective nouns like couple, which may be singular or plural, depending on context and convention, appear to push people into rigid stances. But the Associated Press is admirably succinct in making the necessary distinction:

“When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns. The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday on their honeymoon. They will return in two weeks.

“In the sense of a single unit, use a singular verb: Each couple was asked to give $10.

Sometimes circumstances compel us to stretch usages of collectives, as in the recent headline “At least 9 U.S. troops killed in Iraq.” Some readers complain, rightly, that a troop is a body of soldiers; they then say that troops must be used for military subdivisions, such as regiments, rather than individual soldiers.

Headline writers are up against the lack of adequate alternative vocabulary. Soldiers will not do, because the military personnel involved may include, for example, Marines. GIs is out, because the term is typically limited to enlisted men in the Army. A trooper is a cavalryman.

The sense of the word as referring to individuals rather than military units, moreover, is making its way into dictionaries. A similar fate has overtaken cohort, which, despite the apoplectic reaction of Latinists, has come to be used in the singular as a synonym for companion or even accomplice.

We will try, at least, to refrain from referring anywhere in the paper to a couple of troops.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:25 AM | | Comments (2)


A couple of years ago Nicole Stockdale posted this excerpt from a John Bremner lesson:

"Most American newspapers will say, 'The couple was married yesterday.' Great. God bless 'em. The couple was married yesterday. And then, if you're going to be consistent, then it went to Florida on its honeymoon, yes-yes, yes-yes. Well, then it had an argument. And then it decided to have a divorce. It went its separate ways."

You recount a difficult headline for a copy editor (two words not one, right?) to edit. The "couple" examples ("couple was" and "couple were") sound fine. Their negative forms ("couple wasn't" and "couple weren't") would probably sound fine too.

I think the loud-sounding thud of "couple don't" has much to do with having to use the negative form of the do-operator. Just a suggestion--and I haven't thought it all the way through--maybe next time, consider using "spouses" rather than "couple."

As always, thanks for the entry.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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