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The difference between FEW and A FEW

By Matthew, September 20 2015, 21:56
"A few missing" by Wil C. Fry via Flickr
Learn the difference between "few" and "a few". It is important, and changes the nuance of what you say.

We use "few" and "a few" with countable nouns to say something about number. The most important point to understand is that these words about number are vague. Ask a native speaker, "How many is 'a few'?" They will probably answer, "I don't know... Three? Four? It depends."

These number words are understood by comparing them with one another:

few < a few < some

But they do not mean an exact number.

The difference between "few" and "a few" is easy. The "a" makes a big difference. When you say 'a few', it sounds like more than 'few', but less than 'some'. When there are a few, there are usually enough of something, but not many. In general, when you use 'few', the sentence has a negative nuance. It sounds like a small number. It seems like there are not enough of something. 

Compare these two examples:

  1. "Few people came to my party;" and 
  2. "A few people came to my party."

In sentence 2, it sounds like it was a good party, and I had a nice time. Hooray! Sentence 1 sounds like there was almost nobody at the party, and it was a little sad. I would feel like I have no friends if few people came to my party. I'd be so alone...

Here's another pair of sentences to help you understand:

  1. "There are few cars on the road at 5am;" and
  2. "There are a few cars on the road at 7am." 

In the first sentence, I would expect the roads to be close to empty. In the second sentence, I would expect there to be a little traffic.

Leave a comment if you have a question!

  • Matthew's picture
    About me
    I am from New Zealand. I lived in Japan and Brazil for a long time, but now I am back home in Auckland. I am the founder of Poligo. I like to play guitar and video games and surf when I get the chance. I have a wife and two boys.
    I specialize in teaching English to professionals and English teachers. I have taught English since 2001 in Japan, New Zealand and Brazil. I speak Japanese & Portuguese. I am the founder of Poligo and The English Farm (an online school for business English).

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