5

Which is correct?

Few people knew the way, didn't they?
Few people knew the way, did they?

5

The question is difficult, because the example itself is unwieldy at best. As Peter pointed out, few and a few have opposite meanings in this context, so it would be unusual to use either where there is risk of confusion. Since few here means 'not many', and simple reference to negatives gives us Not many people knew the way, did they?, I would say few also takes did. Conversely, a few, meaning 'some', would take didn't. But whichever you mean, it is better to recast the sentence.

  • 3
    It is a difficult question; indeed, it made an interesting homework exercise for my Intro Ling class. – John Lawler Nov 8 '12 at 15:06
  • +1 for recasting the sentence. English constructions like question tags aren't something that always work, are they? – Robusto Nov 8 '12 at 15:38
  • There's another problem with tag questions: pitch, stress, and intonation. The second question can be asked in at least three ways with different meanings. One way asks for confirmation: "Yes, few did". One suggests the assertion is false because the speaker implies that many knew the way. One, without question intonation, declares the speaker's certainty and asks nothing: in writing it would end with a period, not a question mark. – user21497 Nov 8 '12 at 16:46
  • @BillFranke: can you expand on your third point? Leaving aside that without a question mark it isn't really a tag question, I know no construction using did they and a full stop (apart from did they but know it and the like, or perhaps "I crashed your car". "Did you." which requires a different speaker.). – TimLymington Nov 8 '12 at 16:53
  • 1
    @BillFranke: See this question. – Robusto Nov 8 '12 at 17:50
3

Few means almost none => implying negativity => Did they.

A few means, little but there is some => Didn't they.

Few people knew the way, did they?

A few people knew the way, didn't they?

Source: Google => PDF document

  • 2
    That's right. Few (but not a few) is a Negative Trigger, and requires an affirmative tag; a few is not negative and requires a negative tag. – John Lawler Nov 8 '12 at 15:04
2

Few people knew the way, did they? This is a negative start, just a few up from nobody! A positive tag works well. A same-way tag (few/didn't) would not work - as NEGATIVE same-way tags are rare, and usually sound awkward.

A few people knew the way, didn't they?/ did they? Both work. As 'a few' is seen as positive, the negative tag is fine, and denotes a checking question or something closer to a statement. "A few people knew the way, didn't they!"

As positive-positive same-way tags are perfectly acceptable, the positive 'did they' tag works. Probably said in response to an earlier comment, or evidence that somebody knew the way! But it's a checking response. A few people knew the way, did they? Oh good. That's a relief.

-1

Few people knew the way, didn`t they ? Few people did not know the way, did they ?

  • “Few people did not know the way, did they?” is so convoluted it completely stops making sense. It takes three re-reads to realise that it means “Most people knew the way, didn’t they?”… and even now, I’m not entirely sure that is what it would end up meaning. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '18 at 13:48
  • It is absolutely correct. A positive statement is followed by a negative question tag and a negative statement is followed by a positive question tag. Simple as that. dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/speaking/tags – Beqa Jul 8 '18 at 13:54
  • No, not quite as simple as that. Despite what simplistic sources may claim, negation in English is not that straightforward. For one thing, few is some way towards being a NPI, but it isn’t quite one. It’s somewhere between positive and negative, which is precisely why it’s so resistant to question tags, which depend on the polarity of the preceding clause. And whether something is prescriptively/logically correct is quite different from whether it is parseable as a meaningful sentence. “Not a few fewer people did not not know the way, didn’t they” is grammatical, but quite unparseable. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '18 at 14:01
  • And I can assure you that if you use the sentence “Few people did not know the way, did they?”, no one will be able to give you an answer, because they will be too busy trying to figure out what they’re answering. As it happens, I actually find that “Few people knew the way, didn’t they?” is a more natural tag construction than “…did they?” (as in the top-voted answer); but the negated version loses all meaning. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '18 at 14:02
  • @Gio: Few people knew the way is a negative statement, just like nobody knew the way is a negative statement. For example, ever goes with negative statements and never goes with positive ones. We say few people ever ... and not few people never ... – Peter Shor Jul 8 '18 at 14:33

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