Couple/couple of

Today’s entry is about the difference between speaking and writing.

Technically, it’s only correct to say couple of and not couple when you write or speak about a couple of things. But when we speak, we often say things like “I saw a couple people I knew from class today.” Or “I think a couple teaspoons will do it.” That’s not accurate, but it’s become acceptable colloquially.

When writing, however, it’s important to use the phrase couple of… when referring to two items. (Of course, when we talk about two people who are in a relationship, we simply call them a couple. That’s not what we’re talking about here.)

So when using the word couple, and describing the couple, we use of with it. Trust me, it sticks out if you don’t!


Words to Never Use, Part 2

Last week, we looked at words that seemed fancy and were simply too much.

Today, we’re looking at two perfectly good words and one perfectly bad expression that should be dropped from our communication. First, the words….


We all know the meaning of the word. But is it really necessary? For example, I will often read something like this in one of my student’s essays: “The director uses the color red in this way through the entire film.” If the student has been speaking about parts of the film before (the first half, the opening minutes, etc.), then perhaps the use of entire—set in contrast to the parts of the film that have been discussed up until this point—is legitimate. But in most uses, it’s unnecessary. “The director uses the color red in this way through the film” is probably what is meant.

Other examples:

“I spent the entire day doing” could easily be “I spent the day doing….”

“I built the entire thing myself” could be “I built it myself.”

Entire should probably be dropped unless you are contrasting it with something that is partial.


Truly should be relegated to King James Bible quotations from Jesus, where it really means something. In today’s speech, we use it to try to make the impression that we really, really, really mean something. In that context, it can sound a bit intense, or spiritual, or dreamy. It’s become a truly strange word. Try dropping it and see what happens. You’ll likely discover something stronger and more descriptive if you try.

Now the phrase….

Every single

This is one of those phrases granted to us by Madison Avenue. We might use it to emphasize that something good or bad happened EVERY DAY!!! But every day is a stronger and less repetitive way of saying the same thing. It’s less dramatic, and that might be a negative for some people. But just experiment with dropping it for a while and see what happens!

Words to Never Use, Part 1

Today and next week, we’re celebrating words and expressions that are essentially useless and should be removed from our speech and our writing. This week, we’ll look at those that are high-falutin’ and therefore appear more erudite. Next week we’ll look at those that seem to add a sense of intensity that is both unnecessary and overdone.

First, the “makes me sound smart” expressions:

In order to

This is perhaps that most unnecessary set of words used in written English. (I speak as the reader of hundreds of college essays every year.) Just say to instead and your communication will be clearer and more robust. Try it, even though it might feel more direct and less fancy. In today’s worlds of communication, we don’t need more fancy.


This is perhaps the second most unfortunate word choice in college essays. Just say use for the same reasons listed in the above paragraph. If there is a technical field where the two words are used differently, ignore this advice for communication in that field. For the rest of us and for most normal discourse, drop the longer word, substitute the shorter word, and enjoy the reprieve from striving to sound more intelligent.