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A treatise on language


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41 minutes ago, Kerbart said:

If there was a need to express the number of weeks unambiguously, and that number was to be an integer larger than one and smaller than three, one cannot help but think that the word "two" would have been used. It's really a good choice in that scenario.

The fact that the word "couple" was used indicates that, in the initial communication, there was a need for at least some maneuvering space regarding the exact number. I yet have to find a dictionary that defines couple as "two, and only two, and nothing else."

In that I agree with you, that's why it felt natural to me. Maybe the original definition in terms of quantity is two, but it feels at least a bit weird to me to say couple instead of two, as long as there isn't some special connection drawn between those two things - like in 'a pair'.

Well, and because most people seem to equate couple and few in internet english. At least that's my usual expection, and it didn't yet cause confusion to me.

15 minutes ago, swjr-swis said:

See, this is why I simply keep to 'moar' in my vernacular, none of this couple/few nonsense. The exact number is never in question, it's just moar. And the next time it comes up, it's still moar. It is always moar. Case closed.

...

...

(adds one moar)

So you're saying it's gonna take MOAR weeks until squad comes back? :'(

Edited by Temeter
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Book of Armaments, chapter 2, verses 9-21:

Quote

"First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."

"One... two... five!" "Three, Sir!" "Three!"

Edited by swjr-swis
The count shall be three
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Language is dynamic. It changes. There's no point in defining certain words now wheb it'll be different in a decade or two.

There are dialects within languages, histories of languages, and a bunch of other things. Zeitgeist? German word. Carbine? Based on French. Catamaran? Something from South Asia. Cigar? Spanish/Mayan.

These are words that don't even originate in English. Heck, some aren't even on the same continent.  Old English is long gone, but English has evolved. Even within the last few centuries. 

Remember the thorn? It's gone. It was a character representing "th". 

5 hours ago, tater said:

No one I know (in the US) uses "a couple" to mean anything other than two. Perhaps it's just people who are young and ignorant of what it actually means, like people who think "irregardless" is a thing.

That's the mother of all biases. 

"In my experience, it's not like that."

Well, your experience, like mine, and everyone else's, is incomplete.

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58 minutes ago, Bill Phil said:

That's the mother of all biases. 

"In my experience, it's not like that."

Well, your experience, like mine, and everyone else's, is incomplete.

It's not a bias, it's an observation. I've been speaking English for about 50 years in the United States, I was responding to Temeter who I do not know is a native English speaker (he never answered my question about which English speaking country he was from).

The misuse of language in a way that decreases information content is not a good thing.

A couple means two. That is still the primary definition. That it is misused by enough people that there is any other definition is unfortunate. If I ask for a couple steaks to put on the grill, being brought 3 or 4 would generate an extra trip to return them to the 'fridge. If I were to ask for "a few" I'd not get the amount I need (assuming I know), but I might. There are many ways to say more than 2---some, a few, several. Conflating couple with these makes the use of any of them unclear.

Again, take a work example. If someone were to ask me for a couple days off next week starting Monday so they can travel and have a long weekend, I'd expect them in on Wednesday, and I'd be pretty annoyed if they showed up Thursday, or Friday. They asked for 2 days off.

If I'm making breakfast, and anyone answers my question as to how many eggs they want by saying "a couple" they get 2. Always. If you ordered a couple eggs in any restaurant, they'd bring 2.

Again, this is just my 50 year experience speaking and writing English. If the person I was responding to has more experience with English than I do... I'd be very surprised.

A couple when used in the context of something that is clearly an approximation can have a little slop... I'll be home in a couple days might be more or less than 48 hours, but it would likely not be 72 (3 days). A couple hours... can be give or take minutes less than another hour. A couple weeks could be around 2 weeks, but not 3 weeks (generally people would then say "a few weeks"). Some other languages might generalize "some" to another word or words---maybe "couple" in direct translation from another language does this without considering idiom.

I'll text my brother in law, who was a daily newspaper copy editor, what he thinks.

Edited by tater
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27 minutes ago, tater said:

It's not a bias, it's an observation. I've been speaking English for about 50 years in the United States, I was responding to Temeter who I do not know is a native English speaker (he never answered my question about which English speaking country he was from).

The misuse of language in a way that decreases information content is not a good thing.

A couple means two. That is still the primary definition. That it is misused by enough people that there is any other definition is unfortunate. If I ask for a couple steaks to put on the grill, being brought 3 or 4 would generate an extra trip to return them to the 'fridge. If I were to ask for "a few" I'd not get the amount I need (assuming I know), but I might. There are many ways to say more than 2---some, a few, several. Conflating couple with these makes the use of any of them unclear.

Again, take a work example. If someone were to ask me for a couple days off next week starting Monday so they can travel and have a long weekend, I'd expect them in on Wednesday, and I'd be pretty annoyed if they showed up Thursday, or Friday. They asked for 2 days off.

If I'm making breakfast, and anyone answers my question as to how many eggs they want by saying "a couple" they get 2. Always. If you ordered a couple eggs in any restaurant, they'd bring 2.

Again, this is just my 50 year experience speaking and writing English. If the person I was responding to has more experience with English than I do... I'd be very surprised.

A couple when used in the context of something that is clearly an approximation can have a little slop... I'll be home in a couple days might be more or less than 48 hours, but it would likely not be 72 (3 days). A couple hours... can be give or take minutes less than another hour. A couple weeks could be around 2 weeks, but not 3 weeks (generally people would then say "a few weeks"). Some other languages might generalize "some" to another word or words---maybe "couple" in direct translation from another language does this without considering idiom.

I'll text my brother in law, who was a daily newspaper copy editor, what he thinks.

It is a bias. Using your own observations to make statements ignores other people's observations. You end up with a preference to your experiences, but there are billions of other people with experiences too.

Language is used to transfer info between individuals. Few, a couple, some, etc. Are generalizations. You can always use the word two. 

What a couple means is irrelevant to any definition, rather hoe it's used. Language is dynamic. It changes. A lot.

It's not unfortunate. It's just the change of language. It's natural. Corn refers to local staple crops, but now it refers to maize. Cereal was a type of crop, but now it refers to boxes of stuff you pour into a bowl. If you want two, say the word "two."

Taking that long weekend aspect into context, you can expect 2 days off, yes. But without that context, you are equally responsible for not asking for clarification.

You get 2 eggs because of context. But you can always say "two eggs," though. 

That kind of slack for approximations is because they are just aproximations.

In your 50 years of experience, language has changed quite a bit. I'm sure you have experienced that.

But it's also dependent on where you were raised. Coke, pop, soda. All used in different regions to refer to soft drinks. That's why only using your experience is a bias. It leads to weird things. In my mind, Coke means Coca-Cola, and that's the case for restaurants around here, so I'm fine. But others use it to refer to soft drinks in general.

Basically, just use the number you want. 

Btw, a few can mean 2.

And dank has completely changed. Now it describes memes, but it used to be some kind of icky substance.

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6 hours ago, tater said:

It's not a bias, it's an observation. I've been speaking English for about 50 years in the United States [...] A couple means two. That is still the primary definition. That it is misused by enough people that there is any other definition is unfortunate. [...] Again, this is just my 50 year experience speaking and writing English. If the person I was responding to has more experience with English than I do... I'd be very surprised.[...] I'll text my brother in law, who was a daily newspaper copy editor, what he thinks.

Let me summarize what we have discussed so far. You claim that, based on your many years of experience with English, a language that evolves constantly and is fluid and subject to change, that a couple means two and only two. We should note that most of your experience is over 10 or even 20 years in the past. Considering the ever changing nature of language, the most relevant, recent experience is matched by all the different forum members discussing the matter here. Even a 15 year old will have about 10 years of experience under his belt and much a more recent education to boot. These forum members share the opinion that in modern times, the definition of a couple is similar to that of a few, which means that a couple can mean pretty much any arbitrary small number larger than one.

Of course, the opinion of the majority is not necessarily the truth. To find out what is the truth, we need to turn to authority. First we have your authority, based on years of experience, which we have established, is mostly outdated. Then we also have the authority of several well known and respected dictionaries, none of which seem to claim that a couple can mean only two and nothing else, and with most explicitly telling us that it could mean an arbitrary small number, or is synonymous to a few.

Of course, there might be pressing reasons why your authority supersedes the Oxford, Cambridge and several other dictionaries.

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11 hours ago, tater said:

It's not a bias, it's an observation. I've been speaking English for about 50 years in the United States, I was responding to Temeter who I do not know is a native English speaker (he never answered my question about which English speaking country he was from).

I'd like to think language is there for communication, and my understanding of english did beat your 50 year experience when trying to figure out what Squad ment. 1-0 for me?

And no, as I said, my first language isn't english. How I use couple comes directly from observing how other people use it on the internet.

Edited by Temeter
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I'm not speaking for everyone, and I asked for other native speaker's observations on the usage. I'm fine with the evolution of language, I'm pretty much in the Steven Pinker camp in that regard.

What is your personal experience with the use of "couple?" It almost always is used to mean two, and it gets blurred so infrequently as to make any other use seem to be an anomaly. If a group of people discuss it, and have similar observations, then we start building up more than personal observation, it becomes real data (just as many, many personal observations of real English use have more weight than one person's relatively small number of observations of people who might not even represent majority native speakers).

The first definitions in every dictionary are "two" for couple. Picking a usage a few entries down the list is generally a bad choice for many words, particularly when the difference is not really large. For couple, the indeterminate number definition is informal, so you'd not see it used in a newspaper, except in a quote (where you'll see all kinds of usage depending upon the speaker). They are acknowledging what I said above, that it is sloppy, but they don't add that it's usually within a rounding of two. A couple hours... is not 4 hours. It's approximately 2, but if it's off such that it's less than 3, you're probably OK. It's not like everyone doesn't know what time it is these days, or how long it takes to travel. I'd certainly say "It takes a couple hours to get to Taos." It might well take me closer to 2.5 hours, depending on what traffic in Santa Fe is like. No one would ever say Albuquerque to Durango is a couple hours, it's about 3.something driving pretty fast, probably 4 for old people.

Take the word, "bad." A while ago (I don't keep track, was it the 80s?), it was slang for good. If the dictionary had accepted this usage (it didn't that I know of), and placed it down the line as definition number 5, say, that would be a dangerous choice for someone to use, because their meaning could be taken 180 degrees from reality in a conversation. 

The bottom line is that in my experience couple is not used for indeterminate numbers that cannot be even wrongly rounded to 2. 2 hours, 45 minutes... sure, people might say  "a couple hours," 3 hours, 45 minutes? I cannot imagine anyone say that's  "a couple hours."

I've noticed some peculiar usage in document of what would best be described as "EU English," and I think it might be because direct translation sometimes misses peculiar usage within English. 

Edited by tater
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6 hours ago, Camacha said:

... with most explicitly telling us that it could mean an arbitrary small number, or is synonymous to a few.

"two or a few things that are similar or the same" ... note the primary definition is two, and can also be taken loosely (synonymous to) as a few. Oxford, Cambridge, and Merriam-Webster.

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I find it fascinating that we have a thread on this. I can think of better examples of confusing English

Lorry. Prior to using BBC news i always though this was a decorative bird. Its actual meaning is cow-dung, to lorry someone is to soil them. Tractor trailor could be used, but tractor is used in circumstance when you a overwhelming need to pull something a slow speed with alot of drag or friction, doesnt realy qualify. 

We have pickup truck, really ive never picked up my truck. But people use Pickup. It makes no sense, either

Husband in Norse means Housebound, seems that in the modern age its should say Wifebound, Wifband. Even more moderneque Alloband. Even in the historic period it was the wife that got bound to a house. 

 

 

 

 

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I am from Australia and my native language is English. I can emphatically say that a couple is almost always taken to be a small, perhaps indefinite, amount of more than 1.

"I'll have to think about it for a couple of minutes"

"He saw me a couple of times."

Almost never does it mean 'exactly two' except in the context of a married couple for example. in regular conversation it would usually be taken to be 2, 3 or 4. In the context of "a couple of minutes" even 15 would not be unreasonable.

I now live in a country where the native language is not English, and those here that speak English as a second language also use it in this way; a small indefinite number more than one.

If some one said to me "can I have a couple of days off work?" I would ask "how many?" without hesitation.

Edited by jf0
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2 hours ago, LordFerret said:

"two or a few things that are similar or the same" ... note the primary definition is two, and can also be taken loosely (synonymous to) as a few. Oxford, Cambridge, and Merriam-Webster.

The primary definition is not two. In some cases it is both two and a few. The Cambridge Dictionary clearly states some, two and a few as the primary definition. Those are either all three equally valid, or some should be considered the primary definition because it is mentioned first. In neither scenario two takes the cake. Other dictionaries seem to closely match that, though they do not even the number two. Merrriam-Webster foregoes it and defines a couple as an "indefinite small number :  few <a couple of days ago". The Oxford Dictionary too tells us that it is an an indefinite small number without mentioning it meaning two.

The dictionaries are clear: a couple does not have two items (other than things like married people) as the primary definition, even a biased observator would have to admit. It probably even is barely defined as two, since the dictionaries barely mention it.

Edited by Camacha
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3 hours ago, tater said:

The first definitions in every dictionary are "two" for couple.

Not true. Two of the mentioned (and pretty well respected) dictionaries do not even seem to mention two at all.

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19 hours ago, swjr-swis said:

See, this is why I simply keep to 'moar' in my vernacular, none of this couple/few nonsense. The exact number is never in question, it's just moar. And the next time it comes up, it's still moar. It is always moar. Case closed.

You make a very good point. We're here on a forum with a heavy emphasis on engineering, and from my experience (spending a couple of years in college, make that moar than two years, and life in general afterwards), “engineering types” tend to value "Fact". Which is good. To the point of “as long as I'm stating indisputable facts it's clear what I say.” Which is not good. Now that I have a role in marketing I can see the value of proper communication, and ensuring that whatever you say is to be interpreted in the way you want it interpreted. Of course, and that gives marketing a bad name, marketeers have become specialists in ensuring how you interpret it might not be what we are actually saying but it does teach you to pick words carefully, to ensure that they're interpreted the way you want them.

I doubt if Squad’s marketing background comes in play with what they write. That comes from the Dev Team after all, not from management, and the devs are (to my knowledge) no marketeers. But in that sense “couple” is an interesting choice. As discussed ad nauseum, it means “usually two, sometimes more.” Yes, a married couple is rarely anything else than two, but at the same time no one will interpret I was president of the United States for a couple of years as only two years. Was it the intention to suggest “we’re off the grid for two weeks” while, when away longer, you can point out that “we never said two?

It does highlight that it doesn’t hurt to think carefully about what words we pick. Usually there are a couple of options, on better than the other three. :wink:

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Merriam-Webster has an indeterminate small number as entry 4, else 2.

My print Webster's has no indefinite use at all (it's likely older than most people on the forum).

oxforddictionaries.com has it as 4th (with the 1st entry having 5 sub entires) (before that, all mean 2)

dictionary.com doesn't list anything other than meaning two out of 7 entires. 

thefreedictionary.com has it meaning an indeterminate number at the 4th entry, all others mean... 2.

wiktionary has the informal use of "a small number" as number 3, else they use two.

The only one I found that lists "some" in the first entry is cambridge, but it's still "two, or a few things"

Which don't have two in them?

 

 

http://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2014/07/20/commonly-confused-words-a-couple-a-few-some-several-or-many/

http://www.writerightwords.com/write-right-couple-few-some-several-many/

 

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10 hours ago, PB666 said:

I find it fascinating that we have a thread on this. I can think of better examples of confusing English

Lorry. Prior to using BBC news i always though this was a decorative bird. Its actual meaning is cow-dung, to lorry someone is to soil them. Tractor trailor could be used, but tractor is used in circumstance when you a overwhelming need to pull something a slow speed with alot of drag or friction, doesnt realy qualify. 

We have pickup truck, really ive never picked up my truck. But people use Pickup. It makes no sense, either

Husband in Norse means Housebound, seems that in the modern age its should say Wifebound, Wifband. Even more moderneque Alloband. Even in the historic period it was the wife that got bound to a house. 

 

 

 

 

...which is why here in New Jersey, we park our cars on a 'driveway', and drive on a 'parkway'.

Camacha, I don't know who prints your dictionary or where your source stems from, but every single one I've looked at and opened starts off defining couple with the word "two" or "pair" (which equates to 'two'). Online sources follow suit...
https://www.google.com/#q=definition+of+couple

 

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27 minutes ago, LordFerret said:

...which is why here in New Jersey, we park our cars on a 'driveway', and drive on a 'parkway'.

Unless you go down the shore on a Friday night. Then you know why it's called the PARKway :D

 

27 minutes ago, LordFerret said:

Camacha, I don't know who prints your dictionary or where your source stems from, but every single one I've looked at and opened starts off defining couple with the word "two" or "pair" (which equates to 'two')

 

Nobody is denying that couple can mean two, and in a lot of cases it does. Looking at dictionaries though, it's hard to claim that it exclusively means two, to the point of “and nothing else.”

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5 minutes ago, Kerbart said:

Nobody is denying that couple can mean two, and in a lot of cases it does. Looking at dictionaries though, it's hard to claim that it exclusively means two, to the point of “and nothing else.”

My point was not that of it being exclusively, but that of it being primary/first in definition of.

And on that note: Were I to offer you a couple of M&M's, of course I'd pour out a handful - and not just 2. :wink:

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1 hour ago, LordFerret said:

And on that note: Were I to offer you a couple of M&M's, of course I'd pour out a handful - and not just 2. :wink:

Just not the blue ones. They’re weird.

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