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  1. I have few friends.
  2. I have a few friends.

I thought "few" means just one, two or even none. "A few" typically means more than two. However it seems to me some people say "few" when they really mean "a few", am I right?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 32 down vote accepted

"I have a few friends" is just the same as saying "I have some friends".

"I have few friends", however, implies that you have only a few friends (as opposed to many). In some contexts (not always!), it can also imply that you don't feel very well about it, that you wish you had more friends.

Also, note that there is a very common expression "quite a few", which is a trap for foreign learners because it looks like it could mean "rather few, very few", but it does not. It means the exact opposite thing: "a large or significant number, many". So, saying "I have quite a few friends" is the same as saying "I have quite a lot of friends".

Let's have a look at one more example:

  • "A few people think that smoking is healthy."
    = Some people think that smoking is healthy.

  • "Few people think that smoking is healthy."
    = Only a few people, a very small number, think that smoking is healthy; most think that it is not.

  • "Quite a few people think that smoking is healthy."
    = Many people, a (surprisingly) large number, think that smoking is healthy.

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3  
+1. But I'm not sure if the word "surprisingly" in your last example is implied by the use of "quite a few". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 8 '10 at 19:38
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@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 - To me, "Quite a few" implies "more that you would expect", so "surprisingly" seems to fit. –  Kevin Fegan Aug 6 at 22:05

few = not very many, with a focus on the fact that this number is (remarkably) small.

"a few" = not very many, but at least more than one.

Your examples (1) and (2) are talking about the same number of friends, but (1) focuses on the fact that this is a small number and carries a negative connotation, like you don't have as many as one should/could have.

You can also have this apply to something that it is bad to have a lot of and reverse the connotations:

  1. I have few enemies. (it is somewhat noteworthy how small the number is; good connotation)
  2. I have a few enemies. (I don't have a large number of enemies, but I have more than one)
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Few is what Huddleston & Pullum call an approximate negator, a negative which puts the quantity near zero rather than at zero. Because it's negative, it licenses negative polarity items (NPIs):

Few people ever ran for office.   (= "Not very many people ever ran for office.")
*Many people ever ran for office. (ungrammatical, NPI in a positive clause)

A few also indicates a small approximate number, but it's positive. As such, it doesn't license NPIs:

*A few people ever ran for office. (ungrammatical, NPI in a positive clause)
A few people ran for office.  (= "A small number of people ran for office.")

So the basic difference is between positive and negative.

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Few, when used without a preceding 'a', means "very few" or "none at all". On the other hand, a few is used to indicate "not a large number". The difference is subtle, yet there are instances where the two can mean completely opposite things.

I can't think of any such example for "few minutes" and "a few minutes" but consider this:

I have a few objections to the vendor's proposed approach.

This implies that I am not on board with the vendor's proposal. I have some objections, but not so many as to say "I have several objections...". Nevertheless, I have objections that need to be addressed.

I have few objections to the vendor's proposed approach.

This is a more positive statement that implies I am more or less on board with the proposal. It is not a whole-hearted endorsement, but I barely have any objections at all.

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1  
In this case, "few minutes" is just not commonly said, for some reason. But we could say "She has a little time remaining before the train leaves" (so she can go grab a coffee) and "She has little time remaining before the train leaves" (not enough to go grab a coffee) Or "He has a few years left in which to achieve his goals" (so he should pursue them) and "He has few years left in which to achieve his goals" (not enough) –  Paul Richter May 8 '12 at 7:00
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@Paul: I agree with you that the difference between 'little and 'a little' is same as 'few' and 'a few'. –  Fr0zenFyr May 8 '12 at 11:47

To begin with, something should be said about absolute quantity versus relative quantity:

  1. absolute = without reference to a desirable/needed quantity

  2. relative = with reference to a desirable/needed quantity

So:

1.

I have a lot of friends. ≠ I have a few friends. [Countable noun]

I have a lot of money. ≠ I have a little money. [Uncountable noun]

(large ≠ small quantity, absolute = you do not know whether the person stating this feels that they would like to have more or not)

2.

I have plenty of friends. ≠ I have few friends. [C] more ≠ fewer than needed

I have plenty of money. ≠ I have little money. [U] more ≠ less than needed

(large ≠ small quantity, relative = you do know that the person feels this is more than enough ≠ not enough)

If 'only' is used, it is it which makes the idea of reference to a desirable/needed quantity clear, and 'a few / a little' are used instead of 'few / little'. "I only have a few friends. / a little money." "*I only have few friends. / little money." would be pleonastic, redundant.

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"A few" means "some" or "a handful". "A few" connotes "not an overwhelmingly large number, but not an insignificantly small number either."

"Few" means "virtually none" or "almost zero". "Few" without the preceding "a" connotes "an insignificantly small number"

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Few of us realize the importance of this difference. -- (Regrettably,) many of us do not realize the importance of this difference. -- the stress on the negative aspect.

A few of us are aware of this important difference. -- (Fortunately,) some of us are aware of this difference. -- the stress is on the positive aspect.

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In this example, "few" unambiguously stresses the scarcity, whereas "a few" is used to refer to a small amount, many times as a deliberate understatement.

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A few means "three". Simple as that. A handful is five.

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3  
This question has already received some good answers over the years, one of which is the accepted answer. If you have a look at the existing answers, you will see what we expect. –  Rory Alsop Dec 12 '13 at 10:52
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If someone offered me a few pieces of chicken in my soup, I'd be highly disappointed with three. –  Ste Dec 12 '13 at 14:50
    
There is no such limit that "A few means three". "A couple of something" nearly always means 2, and "A few of something" simply means "3 or more". If I say "I have a few years left before I die", it does not mean exactly 3. "A handfull" simply means "a small number", small enough that you could likely count them with "your fingers on one hand", so "five or less". Or, if the items were small (like coins for example), it could mean a quantity of items that you could hold in your hand, which could be more or less than 5. –  Kevin Fegan Aug 6 at 22:27

protected by tchrist Aug 13 at 14:33

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