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"In X, few had been to town Y. Even fewer aspired to go to town Z."

Are these two sentences together correct?

Few technically means a small number that could be as low as zero. Based on that, does "even fewer" in the second sentence makes sense?

@Araucaria : Exactly right. "few" is entirely different than "a few", which means a non-zero number. But when only "few" is used, it can communicate a very small number, if any. (so it can include zero).

@mitch, tromano, dusty, oldbag: In the first sentence above, "few" can mean zero. There is lot of solid literature behind it i think based on a quick search.

So, using "even fewer" in the second sentence then incorrect/correct; why?

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    'Few' does not techincally mean 'as low as zero'. In fact, there is no -technical- meaning of few. It is vaguely a low number. The implication is that there are some, but not 0. This is not explicit but something inferred. 'Few' is not a range, but rather is an exact number which just is not exactly known. If zero were possible value, then one would be compelled to say 'few to none'. – Mitch Dec 2 '14 at 17:45
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    'Few' means 'zero' only when used ironically: Few pigs can fly. – TRomano Dec 2 '14 at 18:06
  • @mitch Here "few" can include zero. – Joe Black Dec 2 '14 at 20:22
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    When talking about numbers in a non-ironic mode, 'few' can never mean zero, and it can never mean one; I would even go so far as to say that it must mean at least three. Few people in the room were drinking. Few people in the audience understood why the zombie started singing the National Anthem. – TRomano Dec 2 '14 at 20:32
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    @Araucaria On the contrary: few if any may be paraphrased if not zero then few, which clearly excludes zero*. – StoneyB Dec 3 '14 at 3:21
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The implicature of unqualified few is 'more than one': it always takes a plural.

And that it never implicates none may be inferred from the frequency with which it is paired with the contrastive if any:

Few people, if any, had been to town Y.

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I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that 'few' could be zero. Most dictionaries I quickly consulted indicated at least "more than one". See this question for discussion of few vs. couple vs. some, etc.

So I believe the two sentences are fine.

  • Helpful post. However, that question is not about few but a few which is a completely different item with a completely different grammar! – Araucaria Dec 2 '14 at 18:16
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    @araucaria, correct. I clarified this for others in the edit of the original post. – Joe Black Dec 2 '14 at 20:24
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Even if we assume that "few" can be zero, we never assume that it can only be zero -- at least, not without further context.

The second sentence offers further context. We start with one small number that (for the sake of argument) may or may not be zero. We then have a smaller number (which itself may or may not be zero) which supplies additional information and shows that the first small number is not zero in this case. This specific "few" is at least one, and this specific "fewer" is at least zero.

A few villagers -- at least three but never more than five -- stand guard each night to keep the wolves at bay.

It's no mistake when context narrows our interpretation of some word or phrase. That's exactly what we expect context to do.

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Colloquially speaking (US): "The server forgot to give me a straw for my drink, so I went over and grabbed..." a couple(2), a few (>2-<5), a handful (5,or so) a bunch or a mess (6-10)

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    That's a few - which has a different meaning from few, although it's similar. – Araucaria Dec 2 '14 at 18:21
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    @araucaria, correct. – Joe Black Dec 2 '14 at 20:24

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