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It’s pretty clear that “ein Paar Schuhe” is exactly two. Nevertheless, if I ask: "Gib mir doch bitte mal ein paar Zettel.", I would not expect exactly two. Three or even more, actually.

I’ve learned that in English, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours” tends to be interpreted as no more than two hours, whereas “I'll need a few hours longer” can definitely be more than two. I’ve often faced situations where my expectations were wrong when a couple was used.

But if I say in German “Ich brauch noch ein paar Minuten”, I think of this as more than just two.

Lately, I’ve seen refererences, I think on English Language & Usage, where it was inferred that ein paar in German also means just two. Having spent the last ten years on a pacific island, I wonder if the usage of ein paar in German is shifting towards just two.

Is there any truth to this?

Please note that this is not about the difference between ein Paar and ein paar. I’m well aware of that difference and know when to capitalise the P. I’m solely interested in the inherent meaning of ein paar when it is used with a lower case p and thus clearly not depicting a set pair of two items.

Also, ein paar does not cleanly translate to several, a few, a couple. That’s exactly the problem. In English, a couple leans very strongly towards just two, as far as I have experienced in everyday conversation.

The purpose of this question is to establish whether or not in today’s usage in German, ein paar is leaning towards just two or whether it is more likely to mean three or more.

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Could you provide such a reference from EL&U? – musiKk Jun 9 '11 at 12:32
For clarification: in English pair = 2; few = 3; several = 4; handful = 5; half dozen = 6. Each can imply some variance, but the general consensus is with those numbers. – cwallenpoole Jun 9 '11 at 19:29
5 – RoToRa Jun 18 '12 at 8:38
Regarding your remark about the captialisation and the spelling reform: Nothing has changed here. – Wrzlprmft Feb 17 at 13:23

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

In my experience, "ein paar" has not much to do with the number two, it's more likely to be interpreted as "a few" or "a bunch" as opposed to "all" or even "many".

So if you're saying "Gib mir doch bitte mal ein paar Zettel.", you're requesting a few more, but not all of them (probably leaving enough for everyone else).

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Agree. I think "a bunch of X" is closest to "ein paar X". – TheBlastOne Jun 9 '11 at 16:43
@TheBlastOne thx, edited in :-) – Jan Jun 9 '11 at 20:49
Note that "a bunch" may also mean "a lot", like in "thanks a bunch". – stevenvh Sep 6 '13 at 11:14

ein paar

just means "some", "a few", "a couple of".

Ich muss noch ein paar Dinge erledigen.
(I need to take care of a couple of things.)

It has no connection to the number two.

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+1, But just in case: this obviously doesn't a apply to things that come in pairs. "Ein Paar Handschuhe" always means two of them. – Stefano Palazzo Jun 9 '11 at 20:57
@Stefano: Well, look at my edits. Pointing that out resulted in two downvotes, one of which is still present. – musiKk Jun 10 '11 at 6:54
@StefanoPalazzo: "Ein Paar Handschuhe" always means two, but "ein paar Handschuhe" can mean more of them. If you take "ein paar Handschuhe" out of a box of 100 latex gloves (and if you ever did, you know) it usually are "ein paar", not "ein Paar". – Alexander Kosubek Sep 12 '12 at 13:54

The English.Stackexchange comment was probably as mistake due to "Paar" and "paar", as the others have explained already.

However, I don't think there is a general rule of how many "ein paar..." are. It really depends on the context and on the person saying it. ^^

For example, I'm always a bit too late so if I say:

Ich bin in ein paar Minuten wieder da.

It could easily mean "up to 30 minutes". With someone more punctual, this could also mean "up to 5 minutes". ;)

Also, I've heard more than one time:

"Gib mir doch mal bitte ein paar Zettel... aah, doch nicht so viele!"

So it seems to be a bit ambiguous anyway.

My first impulse would have been to write "about 5" or "a handful", though.

With your last edit narrowing your question to:

The purpose of this question is to establish whether or not in today's usage in German, "ein paar" is leaning towards "just two" or whether it is more likely to mean "three or more".

The answer is easier, it is absolutely more likely "three or more".

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Having spent the last ten years on a pacific island, I wonder if the usage of "ein paar" in German is shifting towards "just two".

Um Gottes willen, nein. Ein Paar sind ganz genau zwei seiner Art. Und ein paar sind so viele, wie man benötigt, um das weiterzumachen, was man grade halt so macht.

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It depends.

"Kommst Du in den Garten?"
"Ein paar Sekunden noch!"

Here it could mean more than 100.

"In ein paar Jahren wirst Du diesen Witz verstehen"

could mean 24 months, or maybe even 18 years. :)

What is a common size? Is a concrete number much more appropriate for a small number:

"Gib mir ein paar Gläser für die Gäste."

If you know how many guests there are - maybe 4 or 6 - you would normally tell the exact number. But if the person you ask knows, how many guests there are, you might mean two or three or four. However, even with a tablet, you may only hand over a certain amount of glasses.

I say, it is mainly depending on the context. You might mean 2 up to a few hundret:

"Es sind ein paar Sandkörner in meinen Schuh geraten."

Eine weitere Verwendung für eine größere Zahl als 5 oder ein Dutzend wäre:

"Das kostet doch nur ein paar Lire!"

geäußert vor der Euroeinführung über den Preis eines Essens in einer preiswerten, Italienischen Taverne.

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Well the "Ein paar Sekunden noch" does not directly mean more than 3 to 10 or so seconds BUT because it is obvious that 10 seconds will never be enough, the receiver knows about the satiric nature of the figure -- and automatically knows that it might be 100 seconds he/she has to wait. But the language does not tell that -- it´s the context. – TheBlastOne Jun 9 '11 at 16:46
@TheBlastOne: good point - compare it to "Ein paar Sekunden früher ins Ziel und du wärst erster gewesen" which would not be sarcastic. – ladybug Jun 9 '11 at 21:50
@TheBlastOne: You never have language without context. And I wouldn't call 'a few seconds' satirical. Nor do I accept the general idea, that 'paar' means neccessaraly 'more than 3'. – user unknown Jun 10 '11 at 12:50
unknown, agree, yet I neither made any of those three points. – TheBlastOne Jun 12 '11 at 17:44

It's simple if you write it:

Ein paar Zettel

means "some", a not defined amount, but at least more than one.

Ein Paar Zettel

means exactly two.

When spoken, it's not that simple because you can't hear if "paar" is capitalized or not. So, I would decide from the context. In most cases, "paar" means some. There are not many things that are handled in pairs - like shoes, sausages, socks, etc., so they are mostly the exceptions you can learn, when you are asked for "ein paar".

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You would always use "Ein paar Zettel" (lower case), because Zettel don't come in pairs. At least I never heard of male or female Zettel. – Henrik Jun 9 '11 at 9:25
"Paar" is not always male/female. Think of shoes... – Jan Jun 9 '11 at 9:30
@Jan: well, yes. I should have added a smiley. The point is: usually there are no two Zettel in a stack that belong together. – Henrik Jun 9 '11 at 9:34
Sausages are handled in pairs?? – starblue Jun 9 '11 at 12:50
Yes, but only small Sausages called "Wiener Würtschen" are usually offered in pairs. – harper Jan 15 '12 at 11:01

The most frequent usage is a number you can count on one or two hands depending on the object. I would not absolutely exclude two in a situation where the speaker does not know the exact number, but if someone gave me a package and said "Ich habe ein paar Kekse für dich eingepackt.", I would certainly expect more than two, most likely 3-5.

Note that "Paar" is not used if the number two turns up "accidentally". So, hearing "ein paar Kekse" will never be interpreted as "ein Paar Kekse".

So, the usage is different from "couple" which I would have misinterpreted accordingly up until now.

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"Das Olymiastadion leerte sich zügig - nur ein paar feiernde Zuschauer konnten den Ausgang nicht finden." - countable with one or two hands? – user unknown Jun 12 '11 at 19:39
@user "The most frequent usage", "depending on the object" – Phira Jun 12 '11 at 20:28
How do you count the most frequent usage? Is there really a reason to draw a line between 10 and 11? one or two hands sounds like a rule of thumb. – user unknown Jun 12 '11 at 20:36

Der Eintrag im Duden bietet zwei interessante Details zum Thema:

Einerseits ist in der Wortbedeutung nie die Rede von Zwei

  1. einige

  2. wenige, nicht viele

Und was interessanter sein mag, ist der Zusammenhang zwischen "ein Paar" (also zwei zusammengehörige Dinge/Personen) und "ein paar" (im Sinne von einige):

Herkunft: mittelhochdeutsch pā̆r, ursprünglich ungenauer Gebrauch von ↑Paar für eine kleinere Anzahl

Es ist also gut möglich, dass früher mit "ein paar" Dingen "ungefähr zwei" gemeint war.

Wie du aus den anderen Antworten sehen kannst, ist dem aber nicht mehr so.

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I would interpret "ein paar" to mean 2-3, maybe 4. But it's been a while since I lived in Germany.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

It's literally "a few". This can easily be half a dozen or ten as well. – Ingmar Apr 2 at 16:01
But since "a few" doesn't have a mathematical definition, I interpreted the question to be asking "What will people think you mean?" – MissMonicaE Apr 2 at 17:38
Yes, same as me. – Ingmar Apr 2 at 17:42

"Ein paar" means at least three.

This might have the historical background that at the beginning there only were four words for the number of things: "keines" (0), "eins" (1), "zwei" (2) oder "mehr" (>2). The origin of the word "drei" (3) is - as far as my teachers told me - the word "mehr".

How much you really mean with "ein paar" depends on the context I think. Here are some examples and what I would expect:

A man is at work and calls his wife. He tells her:

Ich muss noch ein paar Dinge erledigen, bevor ich nach Hause fahre.

Maybe he has to finish a presentation, has to check his e-mails, has to switch off his computer, has to water the flowers and has to say "Good bye" to his colleagues.

=> 5 things

Your friend tells you that he is going to travel to the US. He says:

Kannst du auf meine Katze aufpassen, ich bin in ein paar Wochen wieder da.

Maybe he plans to stay away for three weeks but then he likes the country and stays there for another week.

=> 4 weeks

The government increases the child allowance by 6€. A family father says:

Die paar Euro machen den Kohl auch nicht fett.

=> 6 euros

As you can see in the most cases it means "about five".

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