Fighting the Inner Presciptivist with XKCD

I’ve been reading xkcd comics for about 6 years, religiously. I have, in fact, read every single one of them because, like a dork, when I first started reading them, I did the ‘catching up on a new webcomic’ thing and went through the archives. Though Randall claims his is a webcomic of ‘romance, sarcasm, math, and language’, it’s probably safe to say that ‘language’ isn’t often a topic. However, in all those years, he has never posted a single thing about language that immediately made me think, ‘THIS IS WRONG!’. However, today’s comic did:

Mouseover text: “If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether “a couple” should always mean “two”. As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree.”

What I’m referring to is the rule that many of you are probably familiar with: ‘a couple’ means ‘two’ and ‘a few’ means ‘three’ (I’ve also heard ‘a few means three or more’). This was drilled into my brain as soon as I was old enough to even think about using those words. Reading today’s comic drew my attention to the fact that this is a prescriptivist rule… so why didn’t it sit right? Why did I feel so icky about thinking of ‘a couple’ as anything other than ‘two’?

Well, I think it’s because I am fairly consistent in using ‘a couple’ to mean ‘two’ and ‘a few’ to mean ‘three’. I usually counter a prescriptivist rule by acknowledging that it’s a ‘mistake’ I make all the time and it makes my language stilted and awkward if I try to avoid it. Unfortunately, I had nothing in my arsenal this time. So, what do we call a prescriptivist rule that results in natural language?

Inherently, there’s not really a problem with it, I suppose. In my idiolect, ‘couple’ = ‘two’ and ‘few’ = ‘three’ or ‘three or more’. It works, it’s natural, it’s what I feel comfortable with. BUT, I do notice that I don’t use ‘couple’ or ‘few’ when I’m being specific. If I want two things, I’ll ask for two things. If I ask someone to “Grab a couple of lawn chairs and bring them over to the barbeque” I imagine them returning with two chairs – one under each arm. If they returned with three, I would be surprised, but I wouldn’t feel like they’ve misunderstood a basic principle of language (and probably feel like maybe I should have gotten off my lazy bum and helped). Even if I say, “I was hanging out with a couple of friends on Friday”, I mean that it was me and two friends. But more to the point, if someone tells me that they were hanging out with a couple of friends, I imagine anywhere from two to five or so. I apply the rule to myself, but I don’t expect others to follow it.

In any event, after having a good think about this webcomic, I realized that, by George, Randall was right. All of these terms can be used to refer to small sets (though I think of several as a bigger than ‘a couple, a few, or a handful’). Even if I’m comfortable with the prescriptivism in my idiolect, it’s definitely acceptable to use the words in a non-prescriptivist way (though, as with all flouting of prescriptivist rules, be prepared to justify yourself, or people will think you’re an uneducated idiot…I’ve had that happen before.)

As an aside, while I was proofing this post, I reread the mouseover text. It didn’t occur to me that the joke was the fact that at the end, Randall uses the word ‘three’ to refer to the ‘couple of friends’. The first few times I read it, I thought the ‘three’ included myself.

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