So, I was scrolling through the Cambridge Dictionary definition for a little and a few and I noticed that all the examples are all positive sentences. (link here) enter image description here

It got me thinking, would it be safe to say we mostly use these words with positive verbs, and not so much in negative sentences or questions? If anyone could give me examples with negatives and questions, I would appreciate it. I can think of some questions like:

  1. Do you have a few minutes to spare?
  2. Can you have a little patience with her?

However, I can't think of using these expressions in a negative sentence as often as I do a positive sentence. What do you think? If you have any resources to point me to, that would be lovely as I can't find anything in my grammar books. Thanks.

  • 1
    Read again what Cambridge says: 'Little' and 'few' have negative meanings. If you have little of something you don't have much if it, if you have few things you don't have many. Sep 20, 2022 at 7:21
  • Hmmm. Methinks John Lawler might step in here! Sep 20, 2022 at 10:33
  • Well, you could try this one, which explains NPIs, with a list; or this one, which is specifically about few versus a few. Sep 20, 2022 at 18:40

1 Answer 1


Note that we rarely (in 'Standard English') use a double negative such as

  • I don't have no money.

(This sentence could be used as a rather clumsy denial, with don't stressed.) I'd agree that such double negatives are fairly rare.

A more distanced 'double negation'#, perhaps with a focusing modifier such as 'just', 'even', works:

  • She didn't want [just] a few moments on her own. She wanted a long holiday in the Bahamas.

  • I was very, very pleasantly surprised that they weren't even a few hours late. [Reviews.com] (a rather formal mitigating construction)

And a related quantifier:

  • I didn't have even a little bit of swelling when we landed. [AirlineRatings]

Note that 'negation' is precisely defined in grammar, and we really need a different term than 'double negative' for [negative + mitigator (didn't want [just] a few moments] strings.

  • Thanks Edwin. While surfing the web, I also noticed the use of the negative in expressions with “it’s not that”, like “It’s not that I don’t have a few minutes…”
    – meepyer
    Sep 20, 2022 at 12:45
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    Yes, a good example There are possibly other set expressions which while negative take a negative main clause. The term 'idiom' applies to fixed expressions that buck the usual trends, here of the rule of thumb 'Don't use double negatives'. And idioms are by their very nature idiosyncratic beasts. Sep 20, 2022 at 14:35
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    Hmm. Little is negative, but a little is not! Few is negative, but a few is not. Perhaps see here Sep 21, 2022 at 11:12
  • But 'She didn't want a few moments on her own' doesn't sound good minus licensing context, @Araucaria - mysteriously still present in spirit. Sep 21, 2022 at 15:35
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    @EdwinAshworth Hmm, well, I don't think she didn't want works well at all without any licensing context. But, a fair point. Nonetheless, that sentence doesn't represent a double-negative, I don't think. [I'm having a break from having a break, but it's almost over!]. Sep 21, 2022 at 16:02

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