Question: is couple correct in the following sentence: I’ll be done in a couple minutes.
Answer: it depends on the medium.
As a noun, couple means “a pair, two; two people in a romantic relationship.” In informal settings, the noun couple also means “a small but indefinite number.” (Some language experts dispute the second meaning, but it has a colloquial meaning with a 500-year history.)
Given that, shouldn’t the sentence be I’ll be done in a couple of minutes, never mind the medium?
Here’s the problem: language users have been using couple similarly to dozen for almost a hundred years. They’ve been dropping the of and using couple as an adjective since the 1920s.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):
This construction [couple as an adjective] seems well established in American English. Everyone who comments knows it to be common in speech. It is now quite common in general prose, but we have seldom found it in prose that aspires to formality and elegance.
For the most part, this usage is currently limited to specific constructions:
- When it precedes a unit of time: We must fill the jobs within a couple weeks.
- When it precedes number words, such as dozen, hundred, or thousand: We received a couple hundred applications for the job.
- When it precedes more: Even after we took down the job ad, we received a couple more applications.
Few dictionaries list the adjective definition of couple. I found only two in my search: American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), with an “informal” label, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), with no label.
The Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook recommend using couple only as a noun, while the style guides for the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and Modern Language Association are silent on the subject. The Gregg Reference Manual allows couple as an adjective under the constraints listed above, as does the admittedly less-widely used Better Homes & Gardens Stylebook (BHG). Constructions like couple hundred are idiomatic, says BHG, “and couple is perfectly fine on its own in this usage.”
This is a usage change that’s still in its infancy. At this point, couple as an adjective is acceptable in speech, informal texts (e-mail, tweets, etc.), and—in MWDEU’s words—“general prose.” I don’t know how MWDEU defines general prose, but I think of it as writing that’s more formal than e-mail but less formal than a textbook. When the text leans toward conversational, you could use couple as an adjective.
If you find using the of more graceful, then by all means use it. Just pause a moment before telling your writer that it’s absolutely wrong to drop it.