Few or a few?

A student whose first language is Italian was asking me recently what the difference is between ‘few’ and ‘a few’ and when to use which one.  Does ‘a few’ mean many? she asked, in some frustration.  No, I replied, ‘a few’ means several, more than one or two, but not many.  But it does mean more than ‘few’.

I decided not to confuse her further by venturing into ‘quite a few’, but offered a few (i.e. some!) examples:

So – There are a few problems in this text does not mean ‘There are many problems in this text’, but it does mean that there are some problems in it, and they’d better be fixed before it’s submitted.

Whereas – ‘There are few problems with your argument’ means ‘There are hardly any problems with it, or ‘I might question what you say very slightly, but your argument is on the whole very convincing.’

Or – ‘Few people have never heard of Nelson Mandela’ – i.e. just about everyone has heard of him. But ‘A few people thought there was too much coverage of Mandela’s death on the BBC’ indicates a minority opinion – some, but not very many, people complained.

Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford Paperback Reference) says: ‘Few may be used with or without preceding a, although the sense is slightly different.  There were few seats left means there were not many (and is negative in implication), whereas There were a few seats left means that some were still left (and is positive in implication).’

The Bible and Shakespeare have a few choice fews:

‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ (Matthew 22:14)

‘God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2)

‘Men of few words are the best men.’ (Henry V, Act 3 scene ii)

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’ (Henry V, Act 4 scene iii)

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