I know for a fact that "few" represents plurality. I also know "a" before a word represents singularity.

But then why is "a few" always considered as plural? Is there any exception to this or just idiomatic? I just wanna know the meaning of adding "a" if it is not to explain the next following word as a single entity.

"A few men do like that" (Plural and considered "correct")

"A few men does like that"(Singular but considered an abomination)

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • 1
    I sup[pose a few is considered to stand in for a small number of. – Kate Bunting Apr 13 '20 at 7:54
  • "a small number" would make sense as "number" is considered as collective noun and can have either singular or plural depending on context. But " a few" is like a paradox. – English--more exc than laws Apr 13 '20 at 7:57
  • 1
    "Every night since birth"? – nnnnnn Apr 13 '20 at 9:06
  • Inclusion of the indefinite article is idiosyncratic, at least on the surface. Many / lots of / few (!) / plenty of ... are quantifiers not taking 'a'. But a load of / a lot of / a few / a couple of / a number of ... do have the indefinite article. Obviously, one would expect it with a shedload of / a host of, getting closer to partitives / collective nouns. Probably, somewhere in history, the partitive / collective nature was seen as requiring the indefinite article for the less obvious candidates. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 13 '20 at 16:05
  • 'A few' is defined by The Cambridge Dictionary as "some, or a small number of something". This, by definition, excludes both one and zero so "a few" is a plural quantity like 'a dozen' or 'a score'; we say 'there were a dozen people waiting outside' . Also it refers only to countable quantities, we say "I need a few bricks" or "I need a few kilos of sand" but we do not say "I need a few sand" any more than we say "I need four sand". – BoldBen Apr 13 '20 at 17:22

The consensus seems to be that few is an adjective, a pronoun, and noun and has been for about 1,000 years:

A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles Part7 Syntax V4 1949 Jespersen Completed and edited by Niels Haislund:

Indefinite Article with Quantifiers

12.5.11. Some quantifiers are often found in connexion with the indefinite article, thus many, few, little, and cardinal numbers.

Few preceded by the indefinite article and followed by a plural substantive or used in absolute position is recorded from M E, and has several functions in common with ordinary substantives, thus it may take adjectival adjuncts: a good few, etc. Examples with a few used absolutely:

Sh Alls I. 1.73 Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none

Swift (NED) Party is the madness of many, for the gain of a few

Morley (NED) A level which had ... been reached only by a few.

The OED gives:

few, adjective, pronoun, and noun

A. adjective and determiner.

  1. Not many; amounting only to a small number. Also preceded by modifying words, esp. but, so, too, very. Without a preceding determiner, as here, few usually implies antithesis with ‘many’.

[Adjective "I saw few apples that were ripe."

Determiner/quantifier "{A few} apples were ripe." ]

a. Modifying a plural noun either specified or implied by the context. Also after first, last, next; ... Also, in the comparative, as pronoun, frequently with of-phrase as complement (cf. sense B. 1b).

eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) (1871) xii. 75 *Ac ðis ðæt we nu feam wordum arimdon we willað hwene rumedlicor heræfter areccean. *

1989 R. MacNeil Wordstruck iv. 119 He despatched my first few balls smartly, earning three runs.

2016 Daily Tel. 3 Feb. 15/5 *Increasing numbers of young people live in homes where there are few, if any, books. *

**B. pronoun and noun. **

**I. Pronoun uses. **

** 1.a. Not many people or things; only a small number. In earlier use frequently in, or with allusion to, the biblical phrase many are called but few are chosen (Matt. 20:16).**

OE Beowulf (2008) 3061 *Weard ær ofsloh feara sumne; þa sio fæhð gewearð gewrecen wraðlice. *

2007 New Yorker 30 July 32/1 Few would deny that the past year was deeply unnerving.

b. With of-phrase as complement.

1975 L. Perl Slumps, Grunts, & Snickerdoodles xv. 117 We know that few of the wealthy rural squires of the American South bothered to conceal their fondness for imbibing.

2012 FourFourTwo Oct. 84/1 It maintains a cult status with fans that few of its contemporaries are able to match.

II. Noun uses.

2. With indefinite article.

a. A small number of people or things. Also with modifying adjective, as a faithful few, a select few, etc.

OE Ælfric Catholic Homilies: 2nd Ser. (Bodl. 340) xi. 94 On ðam ænlipium he gesette twelf munecas, and ane feawa he geheold mid him sylfum.

1993 Albuquerque (New Mexico) Jrnl. 25 Jan. (Business Outlook section) 27 (advt.) MBA Programs are not all created equal. A select few are granted national accreditation.

b. With of-phrase as complement. A small number of.In quot. OE with plural of Old English ān and partitive genitive. In early use (e.g. in quot. c1175) with of, sometimes difficult to distinguish from use with of-phrase as complement of the verb.

OE Seven Sleepers (Julius) (1994) 54 Ic hæbbe ful gehende ane feawa geferena; hi synd her geond on þam scræfe æt Celian dune.

1869 J. Greenwood Seven Curses London 246 Let us here enumerate a few of the ingredients with which the beer-shop keeper re-brews his beer.

1945 Pittsburgh Courier 24 Feb. 14 A few of his boys are trouble-making screw-ups who drink too much.

3. With the or a demonstrative determiner (e.g. these, those) and plural agreement.

a. Often with modifying adjective: a small specified body of people. Also (esp. in later use): the minority; often opposed to the many (see many prooun and noun. 7).

eOE tr. Orosius Hist. (BL Add.) (1980) ii. viii. 52 Þa feawan þe þær to lafe wurdon gesealdon m punda goldes wið heora feore.

1977 Times 8 Feb. 17/1 The philistines would be foolish to regard aid for the arts merely as a perk provided by all for the esoteric pursuits of the few.

2003 T. Vanhanen Democratization (2004) ii. 28 Briefly defined, democracy is the government of the many, and autocracy the government of the few.

The New Fowler's Modern English Usage gives

… few and the comparative adj. fewer are used with countable nouns, i.e. with nouns that have both a singular and a plural form (bookfbooks; so fewer books, few books, a few books); or with collective nouns (fewer people, few people, a few people).

2 As noun.

Used in a wide range of idiomatic expressions, e.g. a few of those present, a good few (colloq., = a fairly large number), not a few (a considerable number), quite a few, many are called but few are chosen, he had had a few (slang, = a few alcoholic drinks), the Few (the RAF pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain). None of these is in the least questionable (at the level of discourse indicated).

  • Thx for your valuable input. If I may, where do you get all these references, is it from a single big grammar pdf file or multiple? If it's not much could you recommend me some exhaustive grammar books/pdf so that I don't have to ask a question every single time I have a doubt. – English--more exc than laws Apr 14 '20 at 3:22
  • The sources are given in the answer: A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (several volumes) by Otto Jespersen arrow.latrobe.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/…. (Some of his terms have now changed.) == The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) on line: this is available by subscription or through educational institutions or libraries. This is the best dictionary of English. == The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. This give hints, tips, and comments alexandriaesl.pbworks.com/f/The+New+Fowler%27s+Modern+English+Usage.pdf – Greybeard Apr 14 '20 at 8:01

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.