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" can mean "exactly two items of the same kind," or it can be used interchangeably with words like "few" or "several", which in this context mean "comparatively small but definitely greater than one". But some people insist that "couple" can only mean two, by analogy with the specific use of the word "couple" to refer to exactly one pair of people who are in a romantic relationship.

This comic also alludes to similar 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) the people who claim "couple" must mean exactly two by taking the other side of the argument.

The title text similarly alludes to the argument. Randall says "Try asking a couple of friends [...] unless all three of them agree", which jokingly refers to the same group of people first by the vague term "couple," which can include three, and then specifies the exact number, resulting in a jarring effect as if a "couple" meant 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 are about 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 an unusual situation where troll baiting may not work: namely, intending to spark an argument is most effective if there is a disagreement on the matter. 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 may not spark, and the trolling attempt may fail. Randall also takes a side in the title text, saying "a couple of friends" and then later "all three of them".


[Heading above table:]
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
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, "one." 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 handful is 4-6 several is 7-11 dozen is 12 -- Sci0927 (talk) 14:55, 20 December 2021 (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)

I just came here because I was going to use this as an expanded citation for the comic itself, which I was going to use as reference for a non-native speaker about the meaning of "a couple", however, I will not be doing so because the explanation here focuses WAY too much on some perceived trolling ulterior motive of the strip, which I think is just a red herring. Whoever wrote the explanation clearly disagreed with Randall, and assumed that therefor Randall must be itching for a fight with this strip. I, on the other hand, see it as a purely benign strip, usefully pointing out a difference in interpretation that not everyone may be aware of (today you are one of the lucky 10,000): not everyone understands and uses "a couple" to mean "exactly two". And the fact that people have different understandings of the term can lead to misunderstandings, because it is so obvious that "a couple" can ONLY mean [what your native understanding of it is], such that you even think anyone who uses it differently must be deliberately trying to provoke you. They're not. There are real differences in the perception of "a couple" among native speakers of English; Randall is among those (like me) who understand "a couple" to mean imprecisely "about two", which can mean as many as five(ish). We don't hold this understanding to provoke those who understand "a couple" to mean "exactly two". Pointing out that we understand "a couple" to mean "2-5" is not "trolling". It is legitimately how we understand (and use) the term. If you don't think that "a couple" can mean "3", it is not trolling to point out that others disagree with you; it is, in fact, educational and useful (today you are one of the lucky 10,000). So, except for the alt-text, where he does deliberately joke about it in the context of talking about how polemical it can be, this strip is NOT an attempt at trolling. If you feel triggered by it, that probably says more about you and where you fall on the interpretation of "a couple" spectrum. (talk) 15:28, 10 October 2020 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

A couple means 10 minutes. 09:33, 1 August 2023 (UTC)