Consider these two sentences:

  • How many people came? Quite few.
  • How many people came? Quite a few.

The first means few people came (less than expected), the second means many (more than expected). Why the difference, and what exactly is the "a" referring to?

  • 1
    See this similar question
    – scohe001
    Aug 14, 2017 at 20:44
  • 1
    That question is indeed similar (thanks!), but the focus is on explaining the difference in meaning, not why that little article makes such a difference. Aug 14, 2017 at 21:20
  • The article makes the use of 'few' as a singular instance of a plural noun. Then, the adverb 'quite' serves to multiply the noun: "A limited number in a considerable extent". The limited number is repeated which add up to many. Without the article the adverb intensifies the noun: "A limited number to an extreme". Great question.
    – Val
    Aug 14, 2017 at 22:06
  • I won't post this as an 'answer' as I've only anecdotal evidence. Both these expressions use the moderately emphasising ('rather') sense of 'quite'. 'Quite few' is then transparent. 'A few' means 'not many', but the British penchant for showing reserve also makes use of 'a few' ironically to mean 'quite a lot'. 'Quite a few' then appears on the scene to disambiguate. Aug 14, 2017 at 22:46
  • Because few and a few are opposites. Few is a negative trigger, whereas a few means 'at least some', a positive rather than negative quantifier. Consequently 'quite a few' means more than that, and is even more positive, but 'quite few' simply emphasizes the negative direction. Aug 15, 2017 at 0:20


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