How many is "few", "a few", "some", "several" and "many"?
For native English speakers, it is usually important to say how much or how many of something there is. We like to know. If you say "I have books" or "I have CDs", the sentence sounds unfinished. It's better to say "I have some books" or "I have a lot of CDs".
The question many people often ask is "How many is 'some'?" or "How many is 'few'?" Well, I don't know exactly either!
English speakers sometimes like to use words that are unclear. We might use words that express about how many of a thing we mean. Maybe we don't want to count, we don't know how many there are, or we don't want to say how many we are talking about. Whatever the reason, if you want to sound natural in English, it is a good idea to use words like this to talk about number.
If you look at the picture above, the only words that all native speakers agree on are "a", or "one", and "a couple". "A" and "one" are always "1", and "a couple" is always "2". People will disagree about the rest. Try it out and ask some native speakers, "How many is 'several'?" You will get lots of different answers.
The best way to understand these vague words is by comparing them to each other. Let's go through them. We can skip the first two, because know they always mean "1" and "2".
This one is a little difficult. The 'a' makes a big difference.
In general, when you use 'few', the sentence has a negative nuance. It sounds like a small number. It seems like not enough.
When you say 'a few', it sounds like more than 'few', but less than 'some'. When there are a few, there are usually enough.
Compare these two examples:
In sentence 2, it sounds like it was a good party and I had a nice time. Sentence 1 sounds like there was almost nobody at the party, and it was a little depressing.
Here's another pair of sentences to help you understand:
In the first sentence, I would expect the roads to be empty. In the second sentence, I would expect there to be a little traffic.
'Some' is certainly more than 'a few' and usually less than 'several'. We use 'some' when the exact amount is unknown or not important, but we are sure it is not 'many'. Imagine we are talking about our investments. I might say "I own some shares in Apple." How many is that? Well, it's more than a few and less than many. That's all you can really say for sure.
Look at these examples to help you understand how many 'some' could be:
When you look at conversation 1, how many CDs do you think that B has? B has more than a few, but gets most of their music of the Internet. B cannot say that she has very many CDs.
In conversation 2, B has more than a few meetings. B would like to say that he is too busy to meet on Friday. A only has a few meetings and so he is free. B feels like he might already be busy enough.
It's hard to say exactly how many 'several' is. I looked it up and the dictionary says, "More than a few, but not a great number." That's about as accurate as you can get. We use several in much the same way as 'some'. I think that when a person uses the word 'several', they are thinking of a number more than 'a few', but less than 10 or 11 (maybe).
Sentence 1 says that I don't have many books on subject, but I have more than a few. "Several" here means that I have enough books on that topic.
Sentence 2 would mean that she has enough experience of that industry. She might not be an expert, but she would know what she was doing.
'Many' is a word that most people would not find confusing. It depends on what you are talking about, but the meaning of 'many' is usually clear. 'Many' just means a large number, but what 'large' is changes with the topic.
Consider these two cases:
In sentence 1, 'many' might mean 6 or 8 or 13 or some other number. It depends on how many gifts I expect and how many I usually get. In this case, it seems I got more presents than usual. What a great birthday!
In sentence 2, 'many' clearly means millions of people. The speaker might come from a country where smoking is not as common. They would like to say that they think that the number of smokers in Japan is large compared to their experience and expectations.
The word you choose can make a different impression. Imagine that you are talking about mistakes. In each case, the number of mistakes is the same, however you can choose different words to create a different impression. Compare these three sentences:
Compare 1 and 3. The first sentence minimizes the number of mistakes that were made. If they are your mistakes, perhaps you don't want people to feel like you made too many mistakes. The third sentence makes it feel like the number of mistakes is higher and therefore the situation is more serious. This sentence sounds critical. Sentence 2 sits somewhere in the middle. Because using 'some' can be vague, it has a more neutral nuance.