Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Few and A Few

Few vs. A Few

‘Few’ and ‘a few’ are very similar in meaning: they both mean ‘some of a greater number’. Let’s take an example:
Few men could breach the castle walls.
A few men could breach the castle walls.

In both sentences, they are taking about a small number of men. The biggest difference is in how they are used, as it changes the meaning of the sentence significantly.

‘A few’ is the easiest to start with. It means that of the item in question, there are some of them.
We have a few apples left.
We have some apples left.
I have a few cats and dogs.”
I have some cats and dogs.
A few of my relatives came to the family reunion.
Some of my relatives came to the family reunion.

‘A few’ is a positive term, which means that it can’t be used with a negative.
We don’t have a few apples left.

This is incorrect, since ‘don’t’ is short for ‘do not’, and ‘not’ is a negative. If the sentence means that there are no apples, then it would be more appropriate to use ‘any’.
We don’t have any apples left.

If the implication is that there are a lot of apples, then it would be more appropriate to remove the negative and use ‘many’. ‘Left’ will also be removed, because that word is used to mean things remaining from a greater whole, and we don’t need to use it if there are a lot of apples.
We have many apples.

While ‘a few’ can be used with questions, it’s considered very formal.
Do you have a few apples?

In this case, a native speaker would most likely substitute ‘any’ for ‘a few’.
Do you have any apples?

‘Few’, on the other hand, means ‘not many’. It emphasizes how small the number is.
We have few apples left.
We don’t have many apples left.
I have few cats and dogs.
I don’t have many cats and dogs.
Few of my relatives came to the family reunion.
Not many of my relatives came to the family reunion.”

It is a negative word. It also cannot be used with negatives, but for a different reason.
We don’t have few apples left.

Because ‘don’t’ and ‘few’ are both negative, the negatives cancel each other out. The sentence implies that there are a lot of apples, so it would be changed to this: “We have a lot of apples.” That sentence is much less awkward than the previous one.

The overall difference is that ‘a few’ is positive while ‘few’ is negative. When there are ‘a few’, then there are enough. When there are ‘few’, then there are not enough.

Now, let’s go back to the pair of sentences in the beginning:
Few men could breach the castle walls.
A few men could breach the castle walls.

‘Few men’ means that there are not enough men who can do it; they need more than they can get. The implication here is that there are not many men available who could breach the walls, and that the few who can are exceptional in some way. This also means that the castle walls are very strong, and it’ll take exceptional skill to get through them.

‘A few’, on the other hand, means that there are enough men; they don’t need any more. In this sentence, a small band of men could get through the walls, meaning that the walls are very weak and they won’t need many men to get through.

‘A few’ can be given the same meaning as ‘few’ by adding ‘only’ to the beginning.
Few men could breach the castle walls.
Only a few men could breach the castle walls.


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