Thanks for your comments and feedback following my last post on typical learner mistakes. Today we look at a few of your questions that came up during the week – with more to come next week!
What’s the difference between ‘a few’ and ‘few’?
“There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart…pursue those.” – Michael Nolan
“You see, in life, lots of people know what to do, but few people actually do what they know. Knowing is not enough! You must take action.” – Tony Robbins
Few is used to express the idea that the number you are saying is smaller than what you would like or expect, that it is ‘not enough.’ In using few, we mean that the number is ‘not many.’ In addition, we are emphasising or highlighting that the number being spoken about is small.
Few is followed by a plural noun.
He has few friends.
Few people came to his party.
Few teachers were satisfied, and left the school.
Quite often there is a negative meaning:
He’s had few lovers.
The school had very few competent managers.
The school employed few female teachers.
To express the idea that the quantity is small or smaller than you would want, use few with plural nouns, and use little with uncountable nouns:
Few people were aware of the project.
Little work was done until they recruited a new manager.
‘Few people’ v. ‘little people’
Compare the difference in meaning in these two sentences when little is used with countable nouns:
There are few people in Antarctica.
There are little people in Smalltown.
Where are the people 120 cm tall, Antarctica or Smalltown?
In which place are there not many or not enough people?
-> Antarctica has a small population – there are few people there.
Smalltown has people who are small in size.
In contrast, when we hear a few, we imagine 2 or 3 or so people or things being talked about. The dictionary doesn’t give a precise number – certainly it means ‘a small number.’
The MacMillan Dictionary says a few means ‘some but not many.’ I think you can define it as ‘a low number.’
There’s a few good places to go clubbing around here.
She had a few good friends who helped her during her illness.
We use a few with countable plural nouns.
How a few compares to few
A few of my friends came to the party
– we imagine 2 or 3, or a low number came, but there is no negative meaning attached to this.
Few of my friends came to the party
– and we now know that you believe ‘not enough’ came or that the number was lower than what you had wanted – there is a negative connotation.
Compare these sentences:
Few came to the party because they all had an exam to study for the next day.
As she wasn’t very popular at college, few people came to her 21st birthday party.
A few students came to the party even though they found out about it at the last minute.
Quick quiz to check your understanding
Look at these 2 sentences:
Luke: I’m really sad because a few of my friends died.
Natasha: I’m really down because few of my friends died.
Which one is sadistic, Luke or Natasha?
Well, Natasha is – she is sad because the number of friends who died is lower than what she wanted!
Few ideas v. a few ideas
And what’s better to tell your boss in a meeting:
“I have few ideas” or “I have a few ideas”?
Well, if you have few ideas he might get annoyed with you for wasting his time! (or he’s a cool American who guesses you missed out on ‘a’ – until now 😉 )
I’m sure I’ll add more on this later, such as phrases and collocations with a few or few, but to sum up today:
Few and a few can act as a determiner:
Few students attended the lecture.
A few people had problems hearing the speaker.
As a pronoun:
There were a few having problems.
Many have tried but few have succeeded.
As an adjective:
His few good friends desserted him after his affair with a married woman.
I used my iPad edition of the MacMillan Dictionary to check a few things while writing this.
“I ate ALL the pasta” or “WHOLE the pasta”? Difference between ALL and WHOLE
Few bloggers were hurt in the making of this post.
This can be a difficult area for some students so please ask below if you have any questions 🙂