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Difference Between Few and A Few

english wordsFew vs. A Few

In English grammar, there are lots of words that are used to gauge the quantity of a certain subject, or noun. For example, when one may say ‘“ “I have much money in the bank”, this clearly implies that the person has lots of money (the noun is being quantified) in the bank. In this connection, the word ‘much’ is the quantifier. Similarly, there are many other quantifiers being used today. Some of these are little, less, few, and a few, among others. All of which tell us about the quantity of a particular thing or noun. However, the last two quantifiers mentioned, have often been confused.

To minimize the cloud of doubt, a few is used in the positive sense, which means that there is almost no shortage, whereas few (without ‘a’) is used in the negative sense, which implies a very small number, or hardly any. Thus, when saying ‘she has a few pets’, this means that she has some pets, with little or no shortage, whereas, when it is stated as ‘she has few pets’, this simply implies that she has hardly any pets. She doesn’t have enough pets, so to speak. It is also important to take note that these quantifiers are used to quantify countable nouns (nouns that can be counted).

A few can also be used in question formats like: “do you have a few ballpens?” This is still an acceptable form of question, although it is more appropriate to use the quantifier ‘any’ for interrogative statements. Therefore, it would have been better if it was stated as: “Do you have any ballpens?”

From another angle, although similar to understanding the usage of few and a few by its positive or negative sense, the two quantifiers mean ‘not a large amount’, and ‘a small amount’, respectively. In both of these sentences – “A few of my relatives attended my birthday party. I am glad a few of them came”, the statements clearly suggest a positive sense, and that there is a small number of relatives who attended the event. Alternately, in the sentences – “Few of my relatives attended my birthday party. I am not glad because not many of them came”, a negative situation, and not a large number of relatives attended the said event, is described.

1. A few is used in the positive sense, whereas few is used in the negative sense.

2. A few implies that there is almost no shortage in the noun being quantified, whereas few implies that there is hardly any of the same subject or noun described.

3. A few means a small amount of something, whereas few means not a large amount of something.


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