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.

  • 2
    Could you provide such a reference from EL&U?
    – musiKk
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 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. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 19:29
  • 6
    – RoToRa
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 8:38
  • 2
    Regarding your remark about the captialisation and the spelling reform: Nothing has changed here.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 13:23
  • Ein paar Sandkörner is definitively a different count than ein paar Planeten... (in any Language), and ein paar Sandkörner im Mechanismus meiner Kamera is also a different count than ein paar Sandkörner in der Wüste
    – tofro
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 9:19

13 Answers 13


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).

  • Agree. I think "a bunch of X" is closest to "ein paar X". Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 16:43
  • @TheBlastOne thx, edited in :-)
    – Jan
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:49
  • 2
    Note that "a bunch" may also mean "a lot", like in "thanks a bunch".
    – stevenvh
    Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 11:14
  • @TheBlastOne: Nah. A bunch is more than a few. And in the meaning under discussion, ein paar is really a few, no more. Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 17:39

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.

  • 1
    +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. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:57
  • @Stefano: Well, look at my edits. Pointing that out resulted in two downvotes, one of which is still present.
    – musiKk
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 6:54
  • 8
    @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". Commented Sep 12, 2012 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".


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.

  • 2
    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. Commented Jun 9, 2011 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
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 21:50
  • 4
    @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'. Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 12:50
  • unknown, agree, yet I neither made any of those three points. Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 17:44

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.


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".

  • 3
    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
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 9:25
  • 2
    "Paar" is not always male/female. Think of shoes...
    – Jan
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 9:30
  • 4
    @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
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 9:34
  • Sausages are handled in pairs??
    – starblue
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 12:50
  • 2
    Yes, but only small Sausages called "Wiener Würtschen" are usually offered in pairs.
    – harper
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 11:01

One point that has not been mentioned yet is that "ein paar" does not necessarily describe an absolute number, it can also be a relative one. If for example you state that most car drivers would slow down when they see a pedestrian approach a crossing, but a few maintain their speed ("Die meisten bremsen ab, aber ein paar fahren mit unverminderter Geschwindigkeit weiter"). If there are 10 million car drivers in that country and about 3% of them don't slow down, these few reckless ones (die paar rücksichtslosen) still would be 300.000.


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.

  • 1
    "Das Olymiastadion leerte sich zügig - nur ein paar feiernde Zuschauer konnten den Ausgang nicht finden." - countable with one or two hands? Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 19:39
  • @user "The most frequent usage", "depending on the object"
    – Phira
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 20:28
  • 2
    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. Commented Jun 12, 2011 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.


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

  • 3
    It's literally "a few". This can easily be half a dozen or ten as well.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 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?" Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 17:38
  • Yes, same as me.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 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".


I believe “ein paar“ is a very ambiguous term. There had been a definition (2-6 things/Dinge), but in modern times people use the term for 2-how many I need it to mean.
Rules? Regulations? Definitions? Can I eat them and how do they taste? Traurig aber wahr...

  • 3
    Hello Jaschar, willkommen auf German SE! Könntest du noch angeben, woher du diese Definition (2 bis 6 Dinge) hast? Würde mich interessieren :)
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 8:47

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

Nein, leider gar nicht, also ü-ber-haupt nich, nicht einmal im Ansatz—außer es geht um Personengruppen, wie die Sprachgeschichte zeigt.

... or whether it is more likely to mean three or more

eigentlich ist der Begriff nicht quantitativ sonder qualitativ zu verstehen.

In der Schriftsprache taucht das neuhochdeutsche "Indefinitpronomen" ein paar erst relativ spät auf, ca. 16. Jh., lt. Lehrmeinung als "ursprünglich ungenauer Gebrauch von Paar" (DWDS/Pfeifer: Paar).

Allerdings gabe es schon lange vorher althochdeutsch bor / por, das in einigen Dialekten auch noch als solches erkannt wird, im Mittelhochdeutsch noch sehr produktiv, s. BMZ (Hervorhebung meinerseits):

  1. in der adverbialen zusammensetzung enbore, enbor.

a. in der höhe, in die höhe, empor. [...]

b. höchlich, in hohem grade, sehr: vgl. das folgende bor. [...]

  1. in dem bor, *das adjectiven und adverbien vorgesetzt wird, und den begriff von überragen, übermaß bezeichnet, und sich noch in der Schweiz erhalten hat (s. Stalder 1,105). [usw. ...]

[„bor, stf.“, Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch von Benecke, Müller, Zarncke, digitalisierte Fassung im Wörterbuchnetz des Trier Center for Digital Humanities, Version 01/23, https://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/BMZ?lemid=B00866, abgerufen am 30.03.2023.]

Der Kommentar zu 2.a ist durchaus relevant, "gewöhnlich steht aber bor ungenau, oder mit einer ironie so daß ein verneinender sinn entsteht 'nicht sehr viel' d. i. 'sehr wenig, gar nicht.' bei den stellen, die hierher gehören, kann es jedoch wieder zweifelhaft sein, ob nicht ein ne ergänzt werden muß;"

Die Beispiele zu 1.b.α. sind maßgeblich:

  • "ir sît einander enbor holt", d.h. "seid sehr gute freunde"

Dies erinnert entfernt an heute übliche Wendungen, z.B. Ihr seid mir vielleicht e(i)n paar ..., wobei Überschneidung mit ein Paar bzw. Pärchen zu Verwechslung geführt haben dürfte. Die eindeutige Übersetzung in engl. a couple bedarf an anderer Stelle weiterer Erklärung.

Zwar ist der Übergang zum adverbial gebrauchten Indefinitpronomen (oder Demonstrativum?) damit noch nicht direkt belegt. Es gehört ja bis heute vorallem den Mundarten an und bleibt der Hochsprache fern, weil es eben "ungenau" wäre. Pfeifers Datierung ist deswegen nur als Terminus ante quo zulässig.

  • "er fröwete sich enbore vil daʒ er ein schâf vunden hete"

Dementgegen hieße ein paar wenig sicherlich das genaue Gegenteil davon. Da die Substantivierung ein paar Wenige offensichtlich ist, bleibt blos noch zu erklären, ob es sich um schlichte Auslassung oder Analogie handelt. Wegen der Verwirrung um ne (s.o.) ist vermutlich nur, nur ein paar (viel/wenig) zu berücksichtigen.

Somit besteht ü-ber-haupt gar kein Anlass zur Vermutung einer paarweisen Beziehung wegen Paar.

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