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When do you use "one of the few" and "one of few"?

Take for example:

He went to a boarding school, one of few in the country.


He went to a boarding school, one of the few in the country.

Is there a difference?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

We would only use the few when we want a noun phrase which points to a small group (often with a sense of them being an élite, but not necessarily).

My work isn't popular, but the few who do enjoy it treat me well.

We would only use a bare few when pointing out the number but using another noun to show what we are talking about:

There were many apples, but few were edible.

There are few television shows that I enjoy.

We may use the two together for effect:

We admire the bravery of the few who fell at Thermopylae, and the few who fell at Chaeronea, precisely because they were so few.

Here the last few is in this bare use, after two uses of "the few". (On a related, but only slightly on-topic note "The Few" capitalised refers to the pilots of the Battle of Britain).

In the case of your sentences, we have a clause that has a noun pointing out what we are talking about. After that we can either use the bare form and depend upon this noun to let us know what we are talking about, or we can use "the few" form and have that be a noun in that second clause.

So in this case, both are valid, and the meaning is the same, though arrived at in a slightly different way. All the sentences I give here use few and the few in ways that are outside of this overlap and couldn't have any of the uses switched.

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That said, my intuition is that most native speakers would use one of the few in this context, and corpus evidence seems to support this view. The COCA has 92 records for one of few, and 4835 for one of the few. The figures for the (smaller) BNC are 7 and 875. Of course, these figures also depend on context, but the difference is overwhelming. – Barrie England Jan 25 '13 at 21:04
@BarrieEngland I'm inclined to agree, but the first strikes me as in no way strange and I'm just as inclined to believe that most would accept it as such. What think you? – Jon Hanna Jan 25 '13 at 21:13
I rather think the first emphasises the paucity more than the second, but that may be fanciful. – Barrie England Jan 25 '13 at 21:16
@BarrieEngland well, I get that too, so maybe not that fanciful, or maybe we're being fanciful in the same direction. Likewise, the latter gives me a stronger impression of exclusivity as "the few" is so often used for élites. We're well into subtle nuance rather than correctness, to the point where I don't think those impressions could be well argued about beyond personal response. – Jon Hanna Jan 25 '13 at 21:52
@Barrie: I "sort of" agree that most native speaker would probably include that extra "the", if having it or not were the only alternatives. But it still seems a bit clunky to me - not least because of the repetition of the word "the". I'd much prefer "...one of only a few in the country". – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '13 at 23:47

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