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July 30th, 2008

Speak to / singular or plural couple / beggar understanding

by Barbara Wallraff

David Wilson, of Madawaska, Maine, writes: “I am 82 and am somewhat of a word cop. I imagine my sixth-grade teacher preaching: ‘I can speak to my friend. I can speak to you. I can speak to an audience, but I CANNOT speak to the state of the nation.’ I realize that the language evolves, but this change bothers me. It seems like an elite affectation.”

Dear David: I’m glad you count on me to disapprove of “elite affectations”! But “speak to” meaning “speak of” is nothing worse than an oddity. It’s odd for exactly the reason your examples suggest: We usually speak “to” people, and “of” or “about” things.

Still, speaking “to” things like the state of the nation is nothing new. In fact, this turn of phrase is considerably older than you are. The Oxford English Dictionary gives citations for it from as long ago as 1610, when a religion writer named John Dove wrote, “I desire them therefore ... to speake to these foure points.” This use of “speak” is defined as “to treat of or deal with, to discuss or comment on, (a subject) in speech or writing.”

“Speak” in all its forms has been with us almost 1,200 years, and we’ve come to use it in a variety of ways. For instance, not only can we “speak to” things, but things sometimes “speak for themselves” or “speak volumes” -- not to speak of the phrase “not to speak of,” which of course I have just “spoken” of in the sense of writing it.

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Patrick Toomey, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “Is the word ‘couple’ singular or plural? For example, should it be ‘There is a couple of problems with this’ or ‘There are a couple of problems ...’? The second version sounds right to me, but how can ‘couple’ be plural when it has a plural -- ‘couples’?”

Dear Patrick: This one is a tangle to explain. “Couple” can be either singular or plural. But the plural nearly always refers to people, in situations where you’re thinking of them individually rather than as a unit -- as in “The couple are coming in separate cars.” “Couple” in your example is singular.

That’s almost beside the point, though, because you’ve used the word as part of the phrase “a couple of problems.” Phrases that take the form “(singular noun) of (plural noun)” also can be either singular or plural. In this case, the crucial point is whether you’re really talking about the couple or the problems. Obviously, the latter is the case. “There are problems.” How many? “There are a couple of problems.” Whew.

David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “In yesterday’s paper, there was a sentence that read, ‘The reason for the fraud beggars understanding.’ Is ‘beggars’ as a verb an actual word?”

Dear David: Sure it is. You’ve probably even heard it in sentences like “That beggars belief!” and “It beggars description.” As a verb, “beggar” means “to make a beggar of” or, as here, “to exceed the resources or limits of” -- an idea that’s not far off from what must happen in order to turn someone into a beggar. It’s more common in British and Canadian English than in American, but it appears in American dictionaries too.

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

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