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.


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