June 28, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: ic or ical & couple or couple of

Posted in couple/couple of, ic/ical at 6:54 am by dlseltzer

Last week, I wrote that ‘methodologic’ was not a word, and we should use ‘methodological’ instead. In response, I received a couple of emails.

One reader mentioned that I shouldn’t have used the word, ‘so’ in reference to ubiquitous when I wrote:

“…the problem is so ubiquitous…”

and the reader is absolutely correct. ‘Ubiquitous’ means existing everywhere, and there are no degrees of ‘everywhere,’ something is ubiquitous or it not, so I shouldn’t have used the adverb ‘so.’ I should have said, “…the problem is ubiquitous.” I mention this, largely, as an excuse to mention that it is the same situation that you find with the word, ‘unique.’ There are no degrees of ‘uniqueness’; something is either unique or not, so something cannot be very unique or so unique. Okay, I got that off my chest.

Tip 1: ic/ical

A reader writes:

I completely agree that “methodologic” is not a word and should be banned.  I would pass the same judgment, though, on all the other “—logics” you cite as being ok: epidemiologic, hematologic, technologic, gynecologic, etc.  How did these ugly things get to be words, and on whose say-so?  I never use them and think they are ridiculous.

Another reader writes:

I have wondered about the …logic versus …logical endings, usually opting for the …logic. Is there a, well, logic, or barring that, a guideline to which words take the -al ending and which cannot. Also is there a guideline as to when one ending is preferable?

Okay. I’ll bite. Well, I started to research this through my books and by querying Google—the regular routes—and came up against a problem right away. Since logic and logical are words in their own right, it was a challenge finding information on how they are used as word endings. So I decided to search instead for ic and ical and avoid the problems of looking up a real word. Imagine my surprise when I was reading a Google search list and found a very familiar address about half-way down the page. Evidently, we discussed this a couple of years ago— two years ago this week, in fact: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/icical/. Who knew? (Hey, I’ve written a lot of these; I don’t remember them all.) I do remember that I wrote about the difference between historic and historical back in 2008 (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/historichistorical/).

But, I am sorry to say that there are no guidelines or rules for this. That is not to say that people have not tried to develop guidelines. The problem is that none of them work; there are always numerous exceptions to every rule. Too numerous to allow the rule to stand.

Here’s the deal: Sometimes the ic and ical mean the same thing (e.g., electric & electrical, geographic & geographical). Sometimes the meanings are distinct (e.g., economic & economical, politic & political). Sometimes, there is only one form in use (e.g., methodological, public).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to discern what situation you are dealing with unless you have learned or memorized the correct words. As a result, I am falling back on the sage advice I provided in our last discussion. Use a dictionary. When in doubt, look up the form to see if it is there. If it is not, as is the case with publical and methodologic, don’t use it!

Tip 2: Where did the ‘of’ go?

A reader writes:

I have noticed a trend in e-mails and sometimes papers I am getting from students – they are dropping the word “of” after the word “couple.”  So I’m seeing things like “A couple people responded” or “it happened a couple times.”  I corrected it the first dozen or so times I saw it, but now I’m starting to wonder whether there has been a shift in English usage such that this is now acceptable.  I for one find the phrase even with “of” to be a little too casual and imprecise for scholarly writing, but that’s another issue!  Interested to hear your thoughts.

The reader asked for my opinion, and I will give you my opinion, and then I will tell you about some of the other opinions I found while researching this.

First, I had not noticed that trend (thank you, guys), but as I started investigating, I found that it is becoming more and more common. And that is disturbing, because it is more than sloppy—it is out and out wrong! It definitely isn’t accepted. [NOTE: This is where I might have spoken too fast.] And it definitely does not indicate a shift in the language.

This is my reasoning. ‘Couple,’ the way it used in the reader’s example, is a noun and requires a preposition (‘of’) to connect to another noun, so the correct way to express the reader’s examples is:

“A couple of people responded” or “It happened a couple of times”

And that’s it. And most authorities agree. It’s an opinion that I feel pretty strongly about.

But some others view it differently.

Some opine that the omission of the ‘of’ is slang and is fine for informal writing and for conversation.

Nah. [NOTE: My opinion, of course.]

Some say that the omission of the ‘of’ is standard, but is generally considered informal. Those who support this viewpoint consider ‘couple’ to be an adjective, so the preposition would not be used. But this is a minority view. The only authority that I could find that supported this usage is the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. But in a couple of dictionaries, I found it identified as an adjective, so I assume it is accepted by those as well.

I have to reiterate, nah. I hate to dispute Merriam-Webster’s, but how hard is it to add the ‘of’? It seems to me, that in this instance, ‘informal’ is used to mean inaccurate, lazy, or careless. But even if you disagree with me, don’t ever use it in your writing. And certainly don’t use it in your scientific writing.

Finally, I agree with the reader that ‘couple of’ is too casual and imprecise for scholarly writing ever. Keep on correcting; you are doing fine.



  1. Darrell Turner said,

    Are you using a comma splice in the last sentence of the blog above?

    • dlseltzer said,

      It sure is. It took me a while to find it. I should have put an m dash or a semicolon there instead. (I’ll fix it now.) Good eye. Thanks.

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