Tuesday August 14, 2012
Two of a kind
By FADZILAH AMIN
‘A couple of’ and ‘a couple’ are used differently. This week, our Mind Our English columnist looks at nouns referring to pairs, twosomes and beyond.
I would like to look at a few nouns in the English language which usually denote two people or things that are somehow linked to each other: pair, couple, twosome, duo and brace
Of these, the words “pair” and “couple” must be the most commonly used. Let me discuss “pair” first. We can have a pair of shoes (things), a pair of twins (people) or a pair of breeding pigeons (a male and female bird). In these cases the members of the pair go together, though they may not be identical.
We can also talk about two people who are working on or doing something together as “a pair”, like a research scientist’s pair of assistants. In addition to all the above, we can have a pair of jeans or a pair of scissors, for instance, each of which is really one item with two corresponding parts that are joined together.
Do these pairs take a singular or a plural verb? Inanimate things take a singular verb if the verb is in the same clause. For instance, we may say: “That pair of shoes matches your new dress perfectly” or “My pair of scissors is missing”.
But if the verb is in a relative clause after “a pair of ______”, it is plural. For example, we may say: “She has a pair of shoes that match her new dress perfectly” or “I have found my pair of scissors that were missing yesterday”.
Something that consists of two similar parts joined together, like jeans or scissors or spectacles can just be used as a plural noun on its own, which then uses a plural verb, as in: “Whose spectacles are those on the table?” (referring to only one pair of spectacles). We don’t speak of one-half of a pair in the singular, as we do with a pair of unjoined things, like shoes or socks. So we can say “the left/right shoe”, for instance, but we can’t say “the left/right spectacle” or “the left/right trouser”, although we can say “the left/right lens of my spectacles” or “my left/right trouser leg”.
So much for pairs of things. When we talk of pairs of people or animals, we usually use the plural verb, for example: “The pair of twins like to do things together” or “The pair of pigeons are teaching their young how to fly”.
The noun “couple” in the structure “a couple of ______” can mean two people or things, or a few people or things. In both these senses the phrase takes a plural verb. For example, you may say: “A couple of men (i.e. two men) on a motorbike were seen snatching an old lady’s handbag” or “There are a couple of things (i.e. a few things) I want to tell you before I forget”.
“A couple” can also refer to two people in a love or marriage relationship. In this case, the word can take a singular or a plural verb. Singular verbs are often used when they are doing something together.
For example, we say “The couple is getting married in October” although “are” can also be used there. But when a relationship is being broken, we usually use the plural verb, as in: “The couple are going their separate ways.”
A loving couple who are often seen together can also be described as a “twosome”, although this word also applies to other sets of two people who are often seen or do something together.
A “duo” is usually used for two people who perform together, or commit a crime together, although it can also be used for people who are often seen together.
A fan website of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel describes them as “the most successful folk-rock duo of the 1960s.”
I see quite a lot of crime or court reporting in this country mentioning two criminals or alleged ones as “the duo”. This is used in the UK, too, as can be seen in the following sentence from a report of the trial of two computer hackers in that country (guardian.co.uk, October 7, 2005): “Newcastle crown court accepted that the duo had not used the TK worm virus, or its capabilities, for “nefarious” [wicked] purposes.”
Both “twosome” and “duo” take either a singular or a plural verb, but a plural verb is more common in British English. All the groups of two I have discussed above also have plural forms: thus we can have: pairs, couples, twosomes and duos.
“Brace” however does not have a plural form. This word for two, or a pair, is seldom heard nowadays, unless one moves among those who hunt game birds in Britain, or read sports reporting. Thus a hunter can be said to have brought home “two brace of pheasants” when he returned with four pheasants, and a footballer is said to have scored a brace of goals when he scored two goals in the same game. According to the OED, cricket players also talk of “a brace (of ducks)” in the game, which is “a score of nought in both innings.”
Since this article is about twos, I would like to point out a common error among Malaysians when using the word “both”. If A has a brother and B also has a brother, we can say that “Both of them have brothers.” But if A and B are brothers, we can’t say “Both of them are brothers.” We just say “They are brothers.” Yet so many Malaysians use a sentence like the former. Another example is: “Both of them are in love with each other.” “Both” is not necessary there. “They are in love with each other” will suffice.
Finally, I would like to correct a typing error I made in my last article, titled “Collective Nouns”. In the fourth column on the printed page of MOE (Star, July 31), in the paragraph beginning “On the BBC Sport website ...”, I quoted a caption of a photograph as “The GB team was given models of the boats they competed in at the Games.” The “was” there should have been “were”.
The caption was supposed to illustrate what I wrote just before that, which was: “British sports writers almost always use a plural verb after ‘team’...!” I am sorry if I have confused you due to that typo. Here’s the link to the BBC webpage: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/olympics/sailing/7586070 stm.
■ Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. She believes we learn most when trying to teach others.
Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at email@example.com