6

Why is "I see a few trees" grammatically correct but "I see a many trees" not?

I notice that "I see few trees" and "I see many trees" are both grammatically correct, since "few" and "many" are both determiners.

"I see a few trees" has two determiners. Why is it grammatical in the case of "few" but not in the case of "many"?

  • 1
    Few is negative in meaning and its positive equivalent is a few. Whereas, Many is already positive and no need for a manyto get a positive meaning. – mahmud koya May 6 '18 at 3:24
  • @mahmud koya Thanks. This I can find reference for. The "a" operates on (negative) "few" to form a totally new construct (positive) "a few". Could you please formalize your response into an answer so others can vote in support or against. – fundagain May 6 '18 at 8:41
  • Are positive and negative grammatical terms? In "a few" is "a" behaving as a determiner or some other feature? – fundagain May 6 '18 at 9:00
  • A few is rather a fixed expression meaning some and is used with plural countable nouns in a positive sense. – mahmud koya May 6 '18 at 10:02
4

The expressions, a few and its uncountable equivalent a little, are really idioms. Etymonline states that a few was originally meant to convey irony,

Unusual ironic use in quite a few "many" (1854), earlier a good few (1803).

Nowadays, the meaning of a few and a little is closer to "some" rather than two or three, or “hardly any“. To avoid ambiguity, and emphasize the meaning of a small number or quantity, the adverb just can be added.

BBC presenter Kavita Puri, whose father Ravi came with just a few pounds… (source)

The determiner many does not suffer from this ambiguity, many means a large number, placing the indefinite article "a" before many is not idiomatic, it sounds weird and something a learner might say.

…*he came with a many pounds in his pocket… (WRONG)

But we can invert the word order, and make the noun it modifies singular

…he came with many a pound in his pocket… (RIGHT)

Once again, many a is an idiom just like a few and a little, and idioms don't follow the normal rules of grammar or meaning.

many a/an formal + literary

— used with a singular noun to refer to a large number of things or people
It remained a mystery for many a year. [=for many years]
I've been there many a time. [=many times]
Many a tale was told. [=many tales were told]

Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary

2

Few means "not many (people or things)." It is used to say that there are not a lot of people or things. A few means "some (people or things)." It is used to say that there are a small number of people or things.

I have a few [=some/a small number of] friends.

I have few friends. [=I do not have many friends]

The difference in meaning is subtle, but usually few puts a little more attention on the negative—that there is not a large number (of people or things). A few puts a little more attention on the positive—that there is a small number (of people or things).

(from MW Learner's Dictionary, Ask the Editor)

The word many can act as a determiner, noun, pronoun and adjective meaning consisting of or amounting to a large number of (persons or things). It does have always a positive sense, and therefore no need for another a before it to make it more positive. Also, when many is used as a determiner, another determiner like a cannot be placed before it.

There is an idiomatic expression many a/an that can be used with a singular noun to refer to a large number of things or people.

Many a man has tried but few men have succeeded.

  • Erm... this looks very similar to my answer which I posted five minutes earlier. – Mari-Lou A May 6 '18 at 9:41
  • @Mari-LouA, I didn't notice your answer, when I posted mine. The OP requested me to elaborate my comment given above to an answer, that's why I answered based on it. – mahmud koya May 6 '18 at 9:49
2

A many trees is chiefly dialectal and/or regional. Its form has been in use since at least the late 16th century. On analogy with a few trees it is not "inherently ungrammatical." The Oxford English Dictionary calls the form regional in England. In short, it is grammatical to native English speakers found all over the world; although most native English speakers would not call the form a part of standard English.

Here are some 21st century examples from native speakers from England, Australia, Ireland, and the USA.

It will take a many years and much work to construct a common identity in South Sudan, but the South Sudanese shouldn't be afraid of the challenge.

—James Copnall, 2014, A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts, (link) published by Hurst, distributed in North America by Oxford University Press. Mr Copnall (twitter) is a native English speaker and a long-time BBC correspondent.

In Australia we have seen a many natural disasters, including floods, bush fires, and cyclones.

—Dr. Malcolm Freeman, 2015, A Practical Guide - Management of Risks in Small and Medium-Size Enterprises, (link). Dr. Freeman is a native English speaker, who has lived in Australia since 1969 (Facebook page). Natural disaster is, of course, an open compound noun, meaning it is one word; and so a many directly precedes a plural count noun.

BitPim is an open source tool that allows you to view and manipulate files on a many CDMA phones.

-Dr. Darren R. Hayes , 2015, A Practical Guide to Computer Forensics Investigations, published by Pearson Education, USA (link). The sentence appears in the hard copy of the book. Dr. Hayes (Pace University, NY) received his undergraduate education in Ireland, so he might to be a native of that land.

Funkmaster Flex and the Pitbulls DJ Squad are all class acts. We protected them a many nights and they made life easier for us to get through the night (p 224)...My aura has touched a many generations (p 237).

-Ray Mack, 2014, Underestimated: A Searcher's Story, Xlibris (link). He is a native of New York City.

I have limited myself to these four non-fiction examples (although there are plenty more in Google Books) to show how geographically widespread the use of a many + plural count noun is; although yes, the number of speakers who use this form are in the minority, at least from my perspective as a native speaker of American English.

The form has been a part of English since at least the 16th century:

Though a many friends Are made a way.

-Marlowe, Edward III, circa 1593 (cited in OED)

Hee were a mad man that to Secure himselfe from the Fire, would pile a many Billets betweene him and the flame.

-J. Shute, Judgement & Mercy, ca 1645 (cited in OED)

Note well that the forms a good/great many + plural count noun and a good/great many of + plural count noun were also used during this time (along with other adjectives such as considerable/pretty/jolly, per the OED). These forms, using good and great, have prevailed/survived in most people's dialects. But some people can still use the form a many + plural count noun without the intervening adjective.


As for a few (meaning "a small number of") before a plural count noun, we can go back as far as 1297:

Þe kyng with a fewe men hym~self flew at þe laste.
(the king with a few men himself slew at last).

-The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (OED)

Another example:

He shall in a fewe stoundes Lese all his markes.

-Roman Rose, circa 1400 (OED) Note: A stound probably means a moment in this example.

Shakespeare has a lovely line in Cymbeline (1623):

Heere's a few flowers.

-2

Could the issue be the noun? "trees" can be viewed as the plural of "tree" or as an uncountable noun referring to a mass of trees. A few trees is referring to the countable noun, as in some trees that can be counted. Few trees is referring to the generic mass of trees, without actually meaning any particular number. According to Cambridge Dictionary, "few" can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns, whereas "many" can only be used with countable nouns.

  • I cannot find the reference that "few" can be used with uncountable nouns. "I see a few water" or "I see few water" both seem incorrect. – fundagain May 6 '18 at 8:13
-3

because the indefinite articles "a" and "an" are commonly used for general singular nouns. "Many" denotes more than one.

  • Are you saying that grammatically, "few ..." is singular while "many ..." is plural, and that this is so since "few" can mean one while "many" can never mean one. – fundagain May 6 '18 at 8:21

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.