Question: “Dear Grammar Guy, there is a relatively new trend among younger writers and, as a former high school English teacher, it’s driving me crazy. Popular construction: ‘I’ll be with you in a couple minutes.’ Traditional construction: ‘I’ll be with you in a couple OF minutes.’ I know which one I think is correct, but perhaps you can address this is in your column in Current.” (Pamela Jackson, Carmel)
Answer: Thanks for writing in, Pamela. I think I can spare a couple of minutes to talk about the subject.
The word “couple,” as we use it in everyday speech, is a noun with a very specific meaning: “two persons married, engaged or otherwise romantically paired,” or simply “two persons paired together.” It has a different meaning in physics and chemistry, but those uses aren’t relevant to our discussion now.
When we use the phrase “a couple of,” we’re getting into idiomatic territory. “A couple of” serves as an adjective phrase modifying whatever noun comes after the preposition: a couple of dogs, a couple of trees, a couple of dollars, etc. In this sense, the phrase “a couple” does not necessarily indicate two people who are paired together, but rather a small but indeterminate number of people or things which are grouped or loosely bound together. In the phrase above – “I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes” – the speaker is obviously not referring to two minutes which are romantically involved. It’s understood that the speaker isn’t even referring to two minutes, but likely a short period of time required to finish whatever task he or she is currently engaged in; a “few” minutes, more or less. This is an idiom. As native English speakers, we understand the meaning of the phrase intuitively, even though a literal translation for a non-native speaker likely wouldn’t make much sense.
It’s difficult to say that idiomatic expressions have hard and fast rules for them, since by definition they are colloquial, non-standard uses of words. However, since our idiom is changing “couple” from a noun to an adjective phrase, and changing the meaning, to boot, I think it’s fair to require the preposition “of” after “couple” to tip off the listener/reader that we aren’t using the word’s standard definition. Besides, “of” is only two letters. If you can’t spare even a couple of milliseconds to tack it on, well, that’s just lazy.