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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why a Pair of Tickets Might Be a Full House

At a book presentation that I attended a couple months ago, the publisher opened the proceedings by declaring: "Ya khotel by skazat' paru slov o roli poeta v sovremennym obshchestve" (I would like to say a couple words about the role of the poet in contemporary society).

In unison, the entire audience sighed quietly and got ready for a very long evening. For my part, I was struck by the word para (pair), which should have assured us that the speaker would be brief but which actually, on the contrary, had signalled that we were in for quite an endurance test.

Para, you see, to a far greater degree than the English word "pair," has undergone a certain degrading process, adding to its original sense of "a matched set of two objects" the looser meaning of "a couple" of things or even "a few." And, believe it or not, there are purists out there who are actively struggling against this pernicious phenomenon.

The real reason that para attracted my attention that evening was because of an experience I had had only a few days before when buying tickets to a concert. Mozhno paru biletov?" (May I have a pair of tickets?), I asked the cashier, thinking I was speaking quite idiomatically.

The woman, who obviously had too much time on her hands, made a sour face and proceeded to explain to me that I could certainly have two tickets, but by no means could I buy a pair of tickets. This struck me as an unpleasantly nitpicky thing to say to someone working hard to speak a foreign language.

But I accepted her criticism silently, hoping that it would bring me a little closer to the impossible dream of perfecting my Russian.

Since then, I've asked several native speakers and have even found some who are trying to hold the line on para.

They tend to object most vigorously to commonly used combinations like para minut (a couple of minutes), para dnei (a couple of days) or the ubiquitous para slov (a couple of words).

One purist even explained to me that he believed this sloppy usage had been imported into the language by refugees who came to Russia during World War I.

Another native speaker, however, who was not fazed by the degradation of para, pointed out that Nikolai Leskov, a 19th-century writer and one of the most acclaimed stylists of the Russian language, closed one of his novels with a note several paragraphs long entitled Para strok vmesto epiloga (A Couple Lines Instead of an Epilogue).

Now I know what to say if I ever run into that woman from the box office again. If it's good enough for Leskov, it's good enough for me.