3

It seems awkward to say "only several", such as "it is only several blocks away". I could use "only a few", which is non-awkward but seems to imply a smaller number. (the actual number of blocks is about 8)

Is "only several" ok, or would you look for something else in such a case?

3

Only several is not OK, because only implies less than expected, in a way, while several implies more than expected. Using that combination would be somewhat ironical, a bit like this:

Of course I have time; I have only a ton of work to do this week, as you well know. Sod off.

It is only a few blocks away is your best option, because a few also implies less than expected. If you want to say that the number of blocks is low, but less emphatically so, you could say it is a few blocks from there/here (for some reason, away sounds slightly awkward without only). If you know the number of blocks, simply say it is about eight blocks away.

6
  • "several implies more than expected". Do you mind if I ask if you can back this up? I (non-native speaker) feel the same way, but many native speakers do not seem to think so. – dainichi Jan 29 '18 at 5:35
  • @dainichi: Well, it's a subtle issue. Several implies more than expected in this particular example. In other examples, it's less clear. But I would say several is usually used in contrast with one or some other term that suggests a lower number than that indicated by several. Let's take two arbitrary examples from Google Books, and ask ourselves what difference the addition of several makes to the sentence. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 29 '18 at 18:24
  • Several people were kind enough to answer specific questions I had when I was uncertain of my understanding of some key point in their presentation. — Here, the word specifies a certain range of numbers, let's say between 3 and 10, out of a larger potential group, as opposed to a more general people were... It also suggests, "not just one person answered my questions, but several did; there were plenty who did". At least that's the subtle connotation it has for me. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 29 '18 at 18:24
  • Yet, after the psychiatrist's comment, many people suddenly had become restless and uncomfortable. Several people seemed angry. — Just people is not possible, for it would imply that all people were angry. The other word that the author could have used instead with minimal change in meaning is some. Why did he choose several? To me, it feels as though he were saying, you should realise that quite a few people were angry; don't think there were only a few. It suggests "more than the most readily available alternative". – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 29 '18 at 18:28
  • Again, my intuition coincides with yours, but I don't think what you present constitutes proof. You could substitute "a few" or "a handful of" and the sentences would still work. But so do "only a few" and "only a handful". I recently brought this up here languagehat.com/how-many-is-a-couple/#comment-2853086, and many native speakers said they didn't have that nuance, several just means approximately 5-10, although the range depended on the speaker. That's why I was curious to see if you had any proof. – dainichi Jan 30 '18 at 7:16
1

Why not “only several”? What a great question!

This strikes me as one of those errors that a native speaker of English would never make and thus which, when you run across it in a Candidate’s usage, is difficult to explain. I would tend to mark it “Usage” for being unidiomatic, and assess one or two points.

Thinking further, consider the following examples:

a) For many are called, but few are chosen. – Matthew 22:14

b) She made few mistakes. That is, her performance was strong.

c) He made several mistakes. His performance was very good, but not perfect.

I sense a distinction of “directionality” in “few” and “several”: downwards, toward zero, for the first, but upwards from three, for the latter. In b), the teacher, aware of the large universe of possible errors, is commending the Candidate’s performance. In c), the grader, sensitive to any errors at all, emphasizes that the Candidate’s translation was not perfect. Note, however, that “a few” functions exactly as does “several”:

d) He made a few mistakes.

“Only” always adds emphasis, as in one of my favorite sayings:

e) Finding a job is like finding a wife: you need only one.

Thus, to emphasize b), the teacher could have written

f) She made only a few mistakes. (I cannot explain clearly the need here to add “a.”)

However, the grader, to add emphasis to c), would have to change his sentence elsewhere, such as in the verb:

g) His translation was not perfect: he did make several mistakes.

“Few” would not work in g), because its directionality (downwards, toward zero) does not match the grader’s (“upwards”) mindset, which is that the number of errors was greater than two.

Even though “a few” and “several” can both fit in the same context, to me their sense of directionality persists:

h) You asked for suggestions; I have a few.

i) You asked for suggestions; I have several.

In h), the speaker is modestly minimizing the number of her suggestions, whereas in i) she would be emphasizing their existence and, presumably, importance. Thus “only” would fit in h) (“I have only a few”), but not in i).

In a more parochial context, as ATA graders, we might want to express sentiments such as the following:

j) So many linguists work for the Federal government in the DC area, but only a few have ever joined the ATA.

If this topic is not yet in our IEGS (all 61 pages thereof), I would suggest flagging it for inclusion in the next edition.

Others’ comments and suggestions would be welcome.
– Doug McNeal (李一德), ATA Chi>Eng grader

0

It helps to think of "only" referring to "several blocks". As in, it could be several miles or states away. That being said, it would admittedly be less confusing with a different word for "several."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.