• Sentence 1: Many Hindus study Sanskrit,but only a few Parsees study Avesta.

  • Sentence 2: Many Hindus study Sanskrit,but only few Parsees study Avesta.

I fail to understand the difference between both the sentences,if any? Which sentence is grammatically correct and should be used.

  • 1
    Your second sentence is not one that would appear in Standard English. “But only few” is virtually non-existent; it sounds wrong. You should remove only from the second sentence.
    – tchrist
    Mar 10, 2013 at 19:48
  • Welcome to EL&U, Ivean. Please, take a look to English Language Learners (ell.stackexchange.com), the new StackExchange proposal dedicate to those who are learning English as second language. Thank you.
    – user19148
    Mar 10, 2013 at 19:59
  • 2
    No, though that thread is complementary. The limiting modifiers only, merely, and just need 'a' when used before few. But can take few or a few, but is old-fashioned in these usages. Mar 10, 2013 at 20:02
  • @EdwinAshworth, you are right that limiting modifiers aren't covered in the other question. However, I had already voted to close this question as a duplicate before I read your comment. They should be merged. Mar 10, 2013 at 21:17
  • What @Edwin said. The linked question involves few/a few as alternative objects (I have [a] few things). Both forms there are perfectly valid, and usually have different meanings. In this case we're talking about [a] few subjects, where there doesn't seem to be any scope for different meanings. Mar 10, 2013 at 22:08

2 Answers 2


This is nothing to do with grammatical rules. Idiomatically, we usually add the indefinite article if we're going to use only before few, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule. From Google Books:

but only few are 7,310 hits
but only a few are 176,000 hits

I can't see any difference in meaning - with or without the article, with or without the word only, it nets down to the same thing. But it's worth pointing out that if we discard only and focus on the verb to be, the preference is not to include the article:

but few are 2,280,000 hits
but a few are 905,000 hits

I've no evidence to back me up, but I suspect the modern trend is probably moving towards including the article. The high number of hits for my example #3 are probably much influenced by long-established forms such as many are called but few are chosen.

  • The first comparison doesn't distinguish between pronoun and quantifier usages of few / a few. Mar 10, 2013 at 22:32
  • @Edwin: I don't see it makes a lot of difference (my main point was that it's including only that makes the article much more likely), but I'll stick the verb in there too. Mar 10, 2013 at 22:38

It is more elegant to say the following:

A. Many Hindus study Sanskrit; few Parsees study Avesta. OR

B. Whereas many Hindus study Sanskrit, few Parsees study Avesta.

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