1070: Words for Small Sets

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Words for Small Sets
If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether "a couple" should always mean "two". As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree.
Title text: If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether "a couple" should always mean "two". As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree.


The noun "couple" means "exactly two items of the same kind". This comic is satirizing how laymen sometimes use the word "couple" interchangeably with words like "few" or "several", which in this context mean "comparatively small but definitely greater than one". It is also satirizing arguments about the relative meaning of phrases like "few" and "several" (some people will argue that "several" should mean more than "few", while others will argue the opposite or that it doesn't matter), making this comic troll bait. Randall is attempting to "troll" (intentionally provoke) a certain group of people by taking an unpopular side of the argument. To be certain the side he picked is an unpopular one, Randall has made up his own by proposing a "compromise" more likely to infuriate everyone than to make any side happy (a technique he's used before). The comic's claim to "clear things up" also makes it similar to the "definitive standard" proposed in 394: Kilobyte.

The title text is just more troll bait. Randall says "Try asking a couple of friends [...] unless all three of them agree," which implies that a couple means exactly three. The title text also mentions the sentence spacing issue as an example of another topic known to ignite energetic arguments among pedantic types without ever leading to consensus. Sentence spacing is later seen in 1285: Third Way. The sentence spacing arguments typically revolve around the question of whether one or two space characters must be used after the period character at the end of the sentence.

The title text also points out a key flaw in troll baiting: namely, intending to spark an argument only works if there is someone who does not agree. If all of the inquired friends have the same opinion on the matter (be it the definition of 'couple' or the number of spaces after a period), then an argument cannot spark, and the trolling attempt has failed.


Just to clear things up:
[A chart with four rows and two columns is shown.]
A few Anywhere from 2 to 5
A handful Anywhere from 2 to 5
Several Anywhere from 2 to 5
A couple 2 (but sometimes up to 5)

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I disagree on "A Handful" and "Several". A Handful should be about 4 to 7 and several should be 6 to 8, averaging about 7, which sounds just like several. The other two are within the range that makes sense to me. Also, check out how he sneaks "a couple of friends" and "all three of them" into the image text very sneakily. User:Jeff - From the blog

Dude, that's the point. You've been trolled. --Jimmy C (talk) 11:43, 4 December 2012 (UTC)
Several means 12 because I have always understood it to mean 12. I seem to be in a population of 1 though. I wonder how many times I've confused other people or been confused without being able to put my finger on why because of this... 00:42, 7 April 2016 (UTC)

Several sounds like seven, so it should mean a group of 7. 22:24, 25 November 2015 (UTC)

Several is two or more.

A handful to me is just that. A dozen berries, one hand grenade, 2-3 sticks of TNT, a bird (2 in a bush else where gives 3) or a wild blonde (more than 1 way to be a handful I guess). DruidDriver (talk) 07:09, 17 January 2013 (UTC)

English isn't my natural language, but how common is the word "acrimonious"? Should it be explained? 03:40, 2 February 2014 (UTC)

Online dictionaries should help. I'm using some addons to my Firefox to help me. The simplest meaning for "acrimonious" should be "bitter", but this is still one of those words hard to describe. --Dgbrt (talk) 21:56, 2 February 2014 (UTC)

I'm inclined to interpret the hover text as him saying that a couple does mean more than two. A couple of friends, and then all three of them. However, the entry does not agree with me. Thoughts? 09:10, 10 March 2014 (UTC)

My guess is that the entry interpreted "all three of them agree" as "your couple of friends agree with you". I think Randell would sooner troll than use inconsistent grammar so, I also think Randell was using couple to mean 3 friends. Who PhD (talk) 13:58, 9 April 2014 (UTC)

There is a similar ambiguity in German, where "ein paar", which literally means "a couple", is used to say "a few". In Italian the ambiguity is even stronger, as certain regions tend to use "un paio" only in the literal sense, while others mean it figuratively. A friend of mine came from Tuscany to Sardinia and one day told me: "I asked for a couple of cigarette packs, and the clerk said ok, how many? and I said, a couple, and he answered yes, how many precisely, and I had to say, uh, two? What an idiot". I had to explain to her that where I live it was not THAT straightforward that couple == 2 -- 08:01, 5 June 2014 (UTC)

This question has been settled before. A few = 1—4, several = 5—9, a pack = 10—19, a lot = 20—49, … -- 13:14, 25 December 2014 (UTC)

How much/many is/are a cupfull? I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 19:30, 21 January 2015 (UTC)

[Yoseph] - all those words change based on context, for example: A handful of ants(that would probably reffer to something like 60 ants), but a handfull of crackers(would be like 12 crackers), and a handful of batteries(would be something like 6). and so goes for couple(a couple of cars[thats like 2], but a couple weeks ago[thats like 2-3]). (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"Several" means 4 to 7. A couple means 1, 2, or 3. 01:08, 5 March 2015 (UTC)

The answer to the spacing one is, of course, "it depends." 18:59, 7 September 2015 (UTC)

I'm sorry, but I have to take the bait. "A few" literally means three, "A couple" literally means two. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"a couple" in the title may also refer to monogamous relationships. Maybe as a hint that you should think about the other person and not just yourself (a couple is not one). Or in the other way, that faithfulness is important (a couple is no more than two). 15:59, 24 April 2018 (UTC)