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Thinking About A Couple Things

Today’s rhetorical question is: Whatever became of the union of "couple" and "of"? The noun and the preposition used to be firmly wedded, as in, "The groom had only a couple OF drinks." In recent years the groom has had only a couple drinks, which sounds as if the poor fellow needs to lie down.
 
Consider a few Horrid Examples, all from The Washington Post in recent months:

— "The flame-haired columnist (Maureen Dowd), on leave for the next couple weeks, didn’t get back to us."

— "The little tray provided a perfect metaphor for the first couple days of the press tour."

— "But a couple days ago a public-relations firm in Manhattan issued a news release."

— "Christina Aguilera and husband Jordan Bratman had a couple cocktails in the tucked-away ‘birdcage’ …"

Evidently the "of" in "couple of" has been disappearing as slowly as the grin on the face of the Cheshire Cat. The editors of Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devote two pages to the phenomenon. It appears that the "of" began to vanish in the 1950s. In "From Here to Eternity," James Jones wrote that a character "got off the bus a couple blocks up." In 1959 E.B. White wrote to a hopeful free-lancer that "your first couple chapters are pretty good." Garrison Keillor in 1985 recalled that "Mr. Shaw still operated a couple wagons for hire."

The wizards of Webster’s reach a tentative conclusion: "The construction seems well established in American English." On the other hand, in his "Modern American Usage," Bryan Garner is unreconstructed: "Using ‘couple’ as an adjective directly before the noun," he rules, "is unidiomatic and awkward." It is an "upstart." Still worse, it is a "low casualism." Then Garner sighs: "The shift in usage may be fully acceptable someday."

Well, "someday" is not my day. The construction still falls upon my ear with a clunky thud. It is bobtailed, sawed-off, half-baked. It is Damon without Pythias, Romeo bereft of Juliet, corned beef but no cabbage. The "of" adds only two letters and a spaceband to printed matter, so writers who stick to the venerable usage cannot plausibly be accused of padding. Careful writers will hang on to "couple of" and never let it get away.

In that vein, let me suggest a look at "because," "although" and the ubiquitous "as." The first is steadily losing ground to "since." The conjunctive "although" is being sucked dry by "while." And poor little "as" is worn out from overwork.

Yes, many editors approve the employment of "since" in a causal sense, e.g., "Since Griselda spurned his overtures, Siegfried took Brunhilde to the ball." In The New York Times we find:

— "Since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean …?"

— "Since we live in an era when the chasm between lower and upper classes is growing …"

The good gray Times also smiles upon:

— "While Lubombo is still the largest anti-malaria project started by business in Africa …"

— "While Mr. Kirkpatrick was shifted early last year to the team of Times reporters …"

These examples ignore the lurking "as," as in, "As you’re going to town anyway, could you bring back two cases of beer?" The trouble with the "as" is that its instantaneous meaning is not causal but temporal. I suspect that this trouble is more imagined then real, but why take a chance? Surely it is better to write, forthrightly, that "Because Belinda spurned his advances, Rassendale turned to her little sister Annie instead." To begin, "As Belinda spurned …" gets a lively sentence off to a stumbling start. Let us be clear, be clear, be clear!

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Mr. Kilpatrick is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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