"If you can spare me a few minutes" is, to the best of my knowledge, proper English. Yet the article "a" does not match the noun "minutes". Unless few here is a noun. Then it's fine. Except then it raises a questions regarding both the dictionary definition of "a few" as an adjective meaning some, and the rules for how you string together a set of nouns, like "computer program".

If "few" is a noun, then it has changed the plurality of "minutes". If that's the rule, then why isn't it "a computer programs", instead of "the computer programs"?

Even though I'm a native English speaker, (my grandfather was British and I learned from his old texts to before I started elementary school in America), so if there are differences here, I'd love to know both perspectives.

I've become quite an advocate for "going to hospital" instead of "the hospital", because when I was a school child I never dreamed of going "to the school". I assume this is because a school teacher would have boxed the ears of any child that got that one wrong, but that hospitals were less common and countable nouns is a difficult concept to teach. (I still struggle with that.)

  • 3
    Does this answer your question? "A few" vs. "few" Both 'a few' and 'few' are quantifiers, a subset of determiners/determinatives, a class distinct from adjectives. 'A few' which can often be replaced by 'several' is a compound quantifier (as science fiction is a compound noun), and like 'several' takes a plural-form noun and verb. The quasi-numeral 'a dozen' [minutes / men / mince pies ...] behaves similarly. See also this article at EnglishatHome. Oct 6, 2020 at 14:56
  • Understand a few as a small number of. Oct 6, 2020 at 15:40
  • 1
    No, it's not a noun or an adjective but a complex paucal determinative that has internal structure in that it contains the indefinite article "a", with "few" functioning as determiner. It selects plural count heads, which I think answers your question.
    – BillJ
    Oct 6, 2020 at 15:47
  • Thank you all. Apparently, I can't mark an answer, because some moderator closed it, even though, no, it's not the same question, and no, the link didn't help. (I actually read it before I posted.) Asking it again wouldn't help, because I'd have to ask it the same way. What did help most was Bill J's emphatic insistence that it wasn't an adjective. That made me re-read Edwin's response, then look it up in the Oxford dictionary. Turns out most of the other online dictionaries get it wrong. It's not an adjective, and now a whole bunch of other determiner's have been understood to boot. Thanks.
    – knockNrod
    Oct 7, 2020 at 16:46


Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.