Catachresis: Department of No Such Word: *COUPLE adj.
I have labeled this “Department of No Such Word,” but that isn’t entirely accurate. There is of course such a word as COUPLE. It can be used as a transitive verb and as an intransitive verb:
1. He coupled the caboose onto the rear of the train.
2. The dancers were coupled according to height.
And it can be used as a noun:
3. Oswald and Adelaide make a lovely couple.
In sentence 3, “couple” could be replaced by “pair”:
4. Oswald and Adelaide make a lovely pair.
“Couple” used to mean “two of something.” Now its definition has expanded, and it’s often used to mean “several.” The word “pair” has not undergone a similar expansion and is limitied to the meaning “two of something.”
Because “couple” now tends to mean “several,” the phrase “a couple of socks” does not mean exactly the same as “a pair of socks.”
Also because of this meaning change, “pair” is generally—not always—considered as a unit and followed by a singular verb:
5. A pair of shoes costs only $10. [singular verb]
6. The pair of them are equally guilty. [plural verb]
“Couple” more often—though not always—takes a plural verb:
7. A couple of houses on that street are on the market. [plural verb]
8. A couple of extra days is all I’m asking. [singular verb]
In what follows, however, I am going to use “pair” as synonymous enough with “couple” for the purposes of demonstration.
Here are some examples of adjectives: red, long, ugly, sad, rural, legal, quiet. There are literally millions more. Each can be used to modify a noun: red house, long story, sad face, rural area, legal proceeding, quiet day. Each can be used to modify a singular noun, as shown, or a plural noun: red houses, long stories, sad faces, rural areas, legal proceedings, quiet days.
“Couple” is not an adjective, which is why I labeled this post “Department of No Such Word.” There is no adjective “couple.” This means that “couple” cannot be used to modify a noun. “Pair” is likewise not an adjective and cannot be used to modify a noun. In the following sentences, “pair” and “couple” are nouns:
a. In his hand were a pair of aces.
b. In his hand were a couple of aces.
a. There was a pair of shoes under the bed.
b. There were a couple of shoes under the bed.
These pairs of sentences do not mean quite the same thing, but they are parallel enough to show the point we have slowly been working toward, stated above and restated here:
“Couple” cannot be used to modify a noun.
In practice, this means that you have to put “of” between “couple” and the following noun, just as you have to put “of” between “pair” and the following noun. Sentences 11, 12, 13, and 14 are equally incorrect and for the same reason:
a. *In his hand were a pair aces.1
b. *In his hand were a couple aces.
a. *There was a pair shoes under the bed.
b. *There were a couple shoes under the bed.
13. *A couple houses on that street are on the market.
14. *A couple extra days is all I’m asking.
Please note again that all the sentences preceded by an asterisk are WRONG. They are incorrect. They are ungrammatical. Using “couple” without a following “of” is wrong, and if you do it, it will be assumed that you do not know proper grammar. The fix is easy; the choice is yours.
(For an explanation of catachresis, see the post for January 28.)
1 In linguistics, an asterisk in front of a word, phrase, or sentence indicates that the following material is ungrammatical, misspelled, or otherwise incorrect.