Note: This question is about whether few a is a grammatical construction. It is not about the usage of a few. In my mind, few and few a have identical meanings — as opposed to few and a few, which do not.

In a recent English essay of mine, I wrote the following:

...on the edge of a town few a map even bother to record...

The instructor marked it up to the following:

...on the edge of a town few maps even bother to record...

Having my attention explicitly drawn to this made me realize that I have no idea where I picked this construction up — and I use it all the time. I can find several other instances of it in my own writings, but I am having trouble finding even one online. The Ngram viewer seems to support my construction being essentially nonexistent:

"few","a few","few a"

If I check the texts associated with "few a", all I find are variants of "...few, a..." or "...few. A..." (i.e., "few" and "a" are coincidentally linked by punctuation).

The second example above is obviously grammatical.

Is the first?

  • You may also be confusing *few a with a few, which does contrast with few. – John Lawler Oct 5 at 20:38
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    @JohnLawler I've amended the question to make explicit that it is not a matter of confusion with a few. – Riley Scott Jacob Oct 5 at 20:40
  • If you narrow down the dates, "few a" becomes more popular prior to 1800. Unfortunately, Ngram won't show you any actual references from the period. But note that "few a" appears in some legitimate (and non-archaic) settings, plus Ngram will hit on "... few. A...". – Hot Licks Oct 5 at 21:29
  • I have heard of "many a" followed by singular noun. Is "few a" classifiable here? – Ram Pillai Oct 6 at 5:57

You are perhaps thinking of "Many a map shows the town" as in

1989 O. S. Card Prentice Alvin iii. 52 That road led through many a village and many a town.

and attempting to replace "many" with "few". Unfortunately, this collocation does not exist in English. It would be "Scarce a map..." but this construction is somewhat archaic.

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  • Or nary a map... (which, of course, doesn’t mean same thing) – Jim Oct 5 at 20:26
  • Excellent! This is exactly what I am asking about. Does this construction have a name, or is it simple idiomatic collocation that only applies to relatively-few qualifiers? – Riley Scott Jacob Oct 5 at 20:31

Although the claim by user Greybeard is quite convincing, I wouldn't consider it as the ultimate explanation, not just by itself anyway. It's current usage to use this inversion in modern English when the degree adverb "too" is added: "too few a …". Plenty of examples are found here. I wouldn't neglect the possibility of this "extended" form having an influence on your subconscious in the way of legitimizing the "few a" form generally.

  • too few a composer, too few a points,
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  • I find that surprising. Google Ngrams for "too few a" give only one result instead of the expected 10, and that is "too few a number." Searching then with "too few a,caracal,quotidien,contumacious" 1950 - present, shows that "to few a" is between 15 and 30 times less frequent than the others. (books.google.com/ngrams/…) As far as too few a composer is concerned, Google Books gives one result, but looking in the book produces no results. The book is by "Hubert Silly" – Greybeard Oct 5 at 21:27
  • @Greybeard What's the word "quotidien" doing in there? All the occurrences are only in French text… – LPH Oct 5 at 21:37
  • Ha! Hoisted on my own petard! It should be quotidian. – Greybeard Oct 5 at 22:22

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