Idiolect or more widespread?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue May 30 04:29:46 UTC 2006

On May 29, 2006, at 3:33 PM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

> On 5/29/06, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at> wrote:
>> the latter principle (Include All Needed Words, or IANW) is
>> illustrated with complements of "couple" ("a couple of ideas" -- good
>> -- vs. "a couple ideas" -- bad, well, bad for *them*).
> The acceptability of  "a couple NPs" shows a fair bit of regional
> variation. I believe it's pretty common in the North Midland region
> all the way to western NJ. But when you get to the metropolitan New
> York region, "a couple of..." takes over, usually reduced to  "a
> coupla..." [@ kVp at l@], esp. before a consonant.

surely (he says, ever hopeful), someone has studied the geographical

as someone who grew up (not very far) west of western new jersey, i'm
happy with both "a couple of chickens" and "a couple chickens", and
tend to prefer the latter, possibly via my own version of ONW.  as a
young adult, i discovered that people elsewhere had different ideas,
and that advice books mostly hated the "of"-less version.  but, i
would say, it's "a dozen chickens", not "a dozen of chickens", so why
are you dumping on "a couple chickens"?  the answer was always:
Because That's The Way It Is.  experiences like this made me into the
sort of cranky person i am today.  (i mean, they'd use analogy on me,
all the time, and then reject every analogy *i* made.  i became a
very bitter person, as you all know me to be.)

> Of course, even in the Midland dialects where "of" can be omitted,
> there are some constraints.  For instance, if the phrase is followed
> by a personal pronoun or by a Det + NP sequence, then "of" (or the
> reduced form [@]) is obligatory:
> a couple of us/you/them/mine/ours/yours/his/hers/theirs
> a couple of the/these/those/my/our/your/his/her/their people

ah, here's a subtlety i glossed over in my posting -- but it's the
sort of thing that advice books almost never mention (for reasons
i'll try to draw out below).

we're dealing here with various kinds of non-attributive (neither
adjective nor noun) premodifiers  of nouns.  the big fact is that
these come in two types (i'm avoiding assigning category labels
here): the ones that combine with non-pronominal Bare Noun
Expressions (like "(big) chicken", "(big) chickens". and "(big)
poultry") and the ones that combine witn Full Noun Expressions (like
"the"/Demonstrative/Possessives "chickens" and pronouns).

premodifiers combining with plural Bare Noun Expressions come in
three types:
   (a) [most of them] do not allow "of": a dozen, twelve, many, etc.
   (b) [a few] require "of": a lot, lots
   (c) [a few] swing either way: a couple [for me]

premodifiers combining with Full Noun Expressions mostly just require
"of", period.

the kicker is that a whole hell of a lot of premodifiers combine with
both Bare and Full Noun Expressions, and so show both behaviors: a
dozen chickens (*a dozen of chickens), a dozen of the chickens (*a
dozen the chickens), a dozen of them (*a dozen them).

(generally, these premodifiers can't co-occur with pronouns: *both

this is where we enter ben's posting.

the advice literature doesn't tallk about most of this stuff, because
*everybody* (well, every native english speaker) knows it already.
the only points that get mentioned are those where there's an issue
about standard formal written english (or what people imagine it to
be), and in those cases the point is to deprecate some usage.

most language advisers have no idea how incredibly  difficult it is
to pick out the thing they want to proscribe.

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

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