In one of those funny little coincidences, I saw this headline the other day —
Couple trapped in sunken vehicle die
— just as I was reading Patricia T. O’Conner’s lively little book, Woe Is I.
Which I own. Which I have owned for about seven years. But only realized I owned the other day. Because someone absconded with my copy right after it was given to me as a gift and squirreled it away in his classroom. I’m not naming any names but his initials are Mister MRP.
Couple is probably the most common of the two-faced words. It can be either singular or plural, depending on whether it’s supposed to mean two individuals or a package deal. Ask yourself whether you have the two peas in mind, or the pod. Here’s a hint: Look at the word (a or the) in front. The couple is usually singular. A couple, especially when followed by of, is usually plural.
So in this case, the correct headline would have been Couple trapped in sunken vehicle dies.
Woe Is I is an enjoyable contemporary answer to say, Strunk and White, with an easy, no-nonsense approach to language. Although MRP totally disagrees with her approach to making plurals of abbreviations, letters, and numbers (I favor CPAs, she favors CPA’s), I appreciated that O’Conner acknowledges here, as throughout her book, that often we can agree to disagree.
Update 10/24: Apparently, we would not agree to disagree, as O’Conner lists that expression in her chapter on clichés, “Death Sentence,” saying: “People never really agree to disagree, they just get tired of arguing.”