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A Couple of Observations

The English language is an amalgam of a Germanic base to which the Normans added a French overlay starting in 1066. The results are still with us. English vocabulary frequently contains two words for the same idea--one an ordinary word of Germanic origin, such as house , and the other a fancier word of French origin, such as habitation .

Another legacy of the two linguistic inputs into modern English is the way we use units of measurement. In general, English follows French grammar and inserts the word of between the unit and the thing being measured: “A cup of coffee,” “a ton of bricks.” The only exception is the word dozen ( dutzend in German), in which English follows the Germanic style of linking the units directly to their nouns, without an intervening of . It’s a dozen eggs, not a dozen of eggs.

German is not the only language to do this. Native speakers of Russian, for example, sometimes ask for “a glass tea,” which is perfectly understandable to English speakers, though it sounds funny.

We mention all this because of the increasing frequency with which we hear--and, worse, read--otherwise literate people dropping the word of after the word couple . You’ve probably heard it, too: “A couple times,” “A couple things,” “A couple people.” It was even in the newspaper in a couple of places the other day.

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The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage says, “The ‘of’ should never be omitted in phrases such as ‘a couple of chairs.’ ” We agree. “A couple chairs” sounds as odd as “a glass tea.”


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