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April 20th, 2005

A couple days or a couple of days? / its and it's

by Barbara Wallraff

Lauri Christianson, of Beverly Hills, Mich., writes: “In recent years columnists in my newspaper have been leaving out the word ‘of’ after the word ‘couple.’ This morning I read an article by a New York Times journalist who did the same thing, writing ‘for a couple days.’ Other examples include ‘have a couple cups’ and ‘after a couple weeks.’ What do you think of this usage?”

Dear Lauri: Well, it’s not what the Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage say to do. The AP Stylebook says: “The ‘of’ is necessary. Never use ‘a couple tomatoes’ or a similar phrase.” The Times Manual agrees, though as you might imagine, it gives a fancier example: “‘a couple of pomegranates,’ never ‘a couple pomegranates.’”

I know you didn’t ask, but while we’re on the subject of “couple”: Does it have to mean exactly two? That’s the only way I use the word. If I want to say “more than two,” after all, I can think of plenty of other ways to do it. The original meaning of the noun “couple,” about 700 years ago, was “that which unites two” -- typically “a brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” And “a married couple” is always two people, even if one of them is a bigamist. But not even The New York Times Manual is as strict as I am. It allows the word to be “used colloquially, to mean a handful or a few.” So do all contemporary American dictionaries, though they tend to caution that this usage is “informal.”

John Fett, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I was surprised by your recent answer that there is no logical reason for leaving the apostrophe out of the possessive ‘its.’ Isn’t the reason to avoid confusing it with the contraction ‘it’s’?”

Dear John: I surprised a lot of people with that answer. Yes, that is the reason there’s no apostrophe in the possessive “its.” But is it logical? Printers and grammarians, instead of deciding to leave the apostrophe out of most possessive pronouns (“yours,” “ours,” “his,” “hers” and “theirs” as well as “its”), could just as well have left it out of the contraction “it’s” (meaning “it is” or “it has”). Then we could have punctuated “the book’s pages” and “its pages” the same way.

What’s more, not all of our contracted forms contain apostrophes. Think of “Mr.,” written with a period but no apostrophe, to signify “mister.” Then, too, the possessive pronoun “one’s” has an apostrophe -- how logical is that? Of course, that apostrophe is there to distinguish “one’s” from the plural word “ones.” But a few plurals do take apostrophes. For instance, the plurals of single letters do, according to most people’s rules: “Mind your p’s and q’s.” So why wasn’t the decision made to use an apostrophe in the plural “ones” and leave it out of the possessive “one’s”? That way all the possessive pronouns would match. See what I mean when I say our treatment of apostrophes isn’t logical?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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