Is it OK to omit the “of” after “couple”?

The coach was talking about his latest trade, which he said was “hopefully the first of several deals to come in the next couple weeks.”

Quite a few of you are mentally supplying the “of” between “couple” and “weeks,” thinking something along the lines of “Hmph! Another ill-educated sportsperson.”

Then explain, please, why E.B. White himself, co-author of The Elements of Style and a god of language, used that “illiterate” construction in a 1959 letter: “The first couple chapters are pretty good.”

Maybe the omission is not as wrong as you might think. And maybe it depends on whether you think “couple” here is a noun or an adjective. (We are not going to discuss whether “couple” takes a singular or plural verb, except to say that the following example should silence the singles-only crowd: “Authorities say a domestic dispute turned violent when a couple stabbed each other in a home just north of Tampa.”)

Those who think “couple” is a noun liken it to “pair,” as in “a pair of weeks.” To link one noun with another, plural noun, you need a preposition: “of.” (The discussion over whether “couple” in this usage must indicate a definite number—two—and not an indefinite quantity was settled a long time ago, and isn’t worth arguing about.)

Those who think “couple” is an adjective liken it to “few,” as in “a few weeks.” Linking an adjective and a noun requires no preposition.

The dropping of “of” seems to be uniquely American, and at least fifty years old. It is heard coast-to-coast, from the “sporting” classes to the most educated. But—and this is starting to sound like a mantra—there’s a difference between written English and spoken English. Written material usually should adhere more closely to the rules of “formal” English, in part because words have greater impact when they are read. Usage will depend in part on the tone you’re trying to achieve. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes of the absence of “of,” “It is now quite common in general prose, but we have seldom found it in prose that aspires to formality and elegance.”

If it’s in a direct quotation, however, don’t touch it. In fact, another news outlet quoted the coach as saying the trade was “hopefully the first of several deals to come in the next couple of weeks.” It’s unclear which one faithfully replicated his words, and which one altered the quotation, intentionally or not. If the alteration was intentional, we’ll be sending a couple guys out to break the miscreants’ kneecaps.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.