expressions · Grammar

A Few and Few – They don’t mean the same!

drops Just a few drops

There is a difference between a few and few.

This difference is similar to a little and little. Have a look here at my earlier article about this.

First of all, you use a few or few when you can count things. So you can use few or a few for oranges, people, pens, emotions. Anything you can count (countable nouns).

You can’t use a few or few for things you can’t count. So you can’t say a few sugar or oil. Because you can’t count sugar or oil (uncountable nouns). So you can’t say a few sugar.

So now we’ll talk about the difference between a few and few.

A few:

means two or three (four or five can still be a few, too), or a little group of things, people, animals, feelings, etc.

Here are some examples:

1 A There are a few parrots in the zoo, but none of them can talk.

This means there are a small number of parrots in the zoo.

2 A The room has a few small windows, but it isn’t dark.

This means there are a number of windows.

Few:

Few means there aren’t many of something, or not enough.

Have a look at the following examples and see if they make sense to you:

1 B There are few parrots in the zoo, and none of them can talk.

In sentence 1 A there was a small number of parrots, but in 1 B there aren’t many. So in B, you don’t have to contrast with “but,” because it makes perfect sense that if there aren’t many parrots, the chance is small that they can talk. So instead of “but” I can use “and.”

Let’s look at the other example now:

2 B The room has few windows, so that’s why it’s dark.

This means that the room hasn’t enough windows, therefore it’s no surprise it’s dark.

Whereas if you look back at 2 A, there were a few windows, so it is surprising that it isn’t dark. So that’s why you contrast it with “but.”

Here are some more examples of a few versus few.

If you study these examples, you will find that the meaning differs.

3 A Here are a few examples that I’d like to show you.

B There are few examples in this article, so I’m not sure I understood it very well.

So in A there are a number of examples: maybe three, maybe four, maybe five. The exact number doesn’t matter.

In B, there aren’t enough examples.

4 A I’ve eaten a few pieces of fruit this morning. Very healthy!

B I eat few portions of fruit. I know, I know, I’ll probably die young.

So the difference here is: in A, this person has eaten two or three portions of fruit. And in B, they don’t eat enough fruit. In B, they could be eating an apple per week!

Last example:

5 A I have a few regrets about my past life, but I don’t think I’m a bad person.

B I have few regrets about my past life. I’ve done everything as well as I could have!

Here, the difference is again that in A, this person has a number of regrets. There are maybe two, five, seven or ten things he’s done wrong in his life.

In B, this person has led an almost perfect life! There is almost nothing he feels sorry about.

I hope you understand the difference between a few and few now. Try the exercise and see if you really know.

Exercise

Choose between a few and few. You can do this exercise online, here.

1 There are _________ clouds in the sky. Let’s take our raincoats!

2 You should grab your chance to buy tickets now, because there are _________ left.

3 I would like to make ___________ remarks on your lecture, may I?

4 ____________ drops of rain fell on his head as he went out the door.

5 Mrs Snow has ____________ acquaintances, so she feels rather lonely.

6 Nowadays people receive ____________ letters, as most messages are sent electronically.

7 It’s true. The car has ___________ blemishes, but the engine is as good as new.

8 My family and I have __________ opportunities to meet, as we live far apart.

9 If I tell you ____________ of my pet peeves, promise you won’t laugh?

10 There are ____________ philosophical problems that the Greek philosophers didn’t already write about.

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