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Those nouns that swing both ways really vex copy editors.

Over at the Testy Copy Editors discussion board, the perennial concern over whether couple should be treated as a singular or plural has surfaced again. (If you’re not a member, you can sit in the visitors’ gallery and watch the debate.) That this should come up at all can be attributed to two factors entirely independent of grammar. The first is the copy editor’s yearning for one-rule-fits-all principles; everything is either right or wrong, and there is no need for discretion. The second is the tendency to act on what one recollects from one’s Associated Press Stylebook, acquired during the second Eisenhower administration.

Couple, like many collective nouns, is either singular or plural, depending on context. The AP rule is actually quite clear and reasonable:

“When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns: The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday for 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.

You’ll notice that the sneaky AP omits whether the pronouns should be singular or plural when the noun is singular. Is that $10 their contribution or its contribution? If you balk at using a neuter pronoun for human beings, swallow your objections to the singular noun/plural pronoun construction, or rewrite the sentence as a plural.

A second issue about couple comes up in an inquiry from a reader of this blog (and bless all of you who write and comment):

Many journalists, especially sports writers, leave out the preposition "of" in Phrases like "a couple batters" (in a baseball game) instead of writing "a couple of batters." "A couple batters" seems fragmented to me when I expect to see the prepositional phrase "of batters." To me, it's sloppy writing, but I am not sure that it is actually ungrammatical.

It is both sloppy writing and ungrammatical. Idiomatic English requires the preposition of with couple. Omission of the preposition is a casual or colloquial usage. The people who adopt it in writing are either uninformed (highly likely) or devoted to a misguided effort at breezy writing (also highly likely, and not inconsistent with the former).

You are welcome to sneer at them.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:40 AM | | Comments (4)


With regards to "The couple were married..." I have an urget to write it as "The couple was married..." Wouldn't either way be acceptable?

JEM: Yes, either way, depending on context and your intention.

I do sneer at them; they have earned my heartfelt sneers, not to mention scoffs. And in conclusion, may I just point out that there are, horrible dictu, plenty of people who deserve the neuter pronoun. There is a Democrat candidate who wants to be President.....

And then, of course, there are other idioms which mangle one's sense of number.

Consider: "Many a student use coffee to gain extra study hours." (Source: )


A tangent with regard to those "couple of batters": The word couple has a long history of use to mean "a few," and it would be futile to object to such usage in casual speech. But for the careful writer, the word is best restricted to a matched pair. The word derives from the Latin copula, to join (from which we also get copulate). A part is coupled to its counterpart: plug and socket, nut and bolt, pipe and fitting. Two batters (or other like objects) do not a couple make, unless they are in some way connected.

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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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