Posted by: Jack Henry | October 11, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Couple, Few, Several

Sometimes, it is not practical to include a precise number in your writing, either because it is unknown or unimportant. That’s when couple, few, and several come in handy.

However, these words come with their own set of questions: Does a couple mean exactly two? Does a few mean exactly three? What is the cutoff between a few and several?

The short answer is that these words are useful because they’re imprecise, so forget mapping each word to a specific number or range of numbers. In other words, if you’re using a few to mean exactly three, why wouldn’t you just say three?

Here are some definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • couple: two; also few—used with a <a couple drinks>
  • few: at least some but indeterminately small in number—used with a <caught a few fish>
  • several: more than one <several pleas>; more than two but fewer than many <moved several inches>

For some history on these three words, see ‘Couple,’ ‘Few,’ and ‘Several’: The (Mostly) Definitive Guide on the Merriam-Webster website.

If precision is important, use an exact number, an approximation (“about four”), or a range (“from three to six”). If precision is not important, it’s fine to write a sentence such as, “The file may take a few minutes to download.” But don’t be surprised when a reader’s definition is different than yours.

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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