When Is It OK to Say “Two Pair”?

Montreal Translation Syllabus Pair of ShoesTwo pair is an expression that’s been irking me for a while. Math may not be my strong suit, but it would seem to me that any word preceded by two should be written in the plural form, as in pairs.

When my highly educated and mighty proper mother-in-law continued to bandy about the expression two pair, it pushed me to dig a little deeper.

If I had spent less time with crusty old dictionaries and more time at casinos, I probably would have recognized the term. As it turns out, two pair is a poker hand (e.g., two queens, two sixes, and another card called the kicker).

But usage of two pair doesn’t stop there. Random House Webster’s Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation offers the following curious entry for pair vs. pairs:

When modified by a number, the plural of pair is commonly pairs, especially when referring to persons: The three pairs of costumed children led off the Halloween parade. The plural pair is used mainly in reference to inanimate objects or nonhumans: There are four pair (or pairs) of shoelaces. We have two pair (or pairs) of rabbits.

Grammar guru Mignon Fogarty offers sage advice in her book Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time: “Sometimes you’ll see pair (without an s at the end) used as a plural noun, but pairs is the better choice in such instances.”

That said, if you do use the term, you’re in good company. James Joyce and Charles Dickens used a similar expression, two pair back which, according to David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page, refers to the “room at the back of the house on the second floor. Two pair refers to two flights of steps with a landing in between.”

It would seem that if you’re talking about aces, rabbits, or back rooms, you get the green light for two pair. If you’re talking about twins, best put on the breaks. To my ear, two pair sounds wonderfully colloquial and slightly edgy. I say use it in casual contexts without shame, but avoid it if your image is on the line.




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