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'Few' or 'A Few'? What Is the Difference? | Mastering Grammar

(Last Updated: 7 February 2024)


Few vs A Few: Understanding the Difference

The expressions few and a few may appear similar, but they carry different meanings when referring to small quantities. In this blog post, we will explore the nuances between these expressions to help clarify their proper use.

Few: Not Many

Few is used with countable nouns to mean 'not many':

✅ He has few options left, so he must choose carefully. (The limited options could be a problem.)

✅ Few people attended the meeting, which was disappointing. (The speaker expected more attendees.)

✅ She had few words to say after the shocking announcement. (She was possibly at a loss for words.)

✅ There are few seats available for the concert, so we need to book now. (There is a sense of urgency due to scarcity.)

A Few: Some, Several

A few is used with countable nouns to mean 'some' or 'several':

I have a few coins in my pocket to buy a snack. (I have enough for what I need.)

She read a few pages of the book before going to bed. (She read a small but satisfying number of pages.)

The recipe calls for a few drops of lemon juice. (A small amount of lemon juice is sufficient.)

I made a few good friends during my time in Italy. (A handful of meaningful relationships were formed.)

Special Note on Only a Few

When using only with few, always include the article a. The correct phrase is only a few, indicating a limited quantity:

✅ Only a few people showed up due to the rain.
❌ 
Only few people showed up due to the rain.

We only have a few minutes left before the shop closes.
We only have few minutes left before the shop closes.

Only a few students passed the exam. It was extremely difficult.
Only few students passed the exam. It was extremely difficult.

✅ There were only a few tickets left.
There were only few tickets left.


As you can see, the choice between few and a few can greatly affect the meaning you convey: few means 'not many', whereas a few means 'some'.

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Examples from the Media

On one hand, Trump knows that saying "radical Islamic terrorism" is tough and strong, and there are few things more important to him than looking tough and strong. On the other hand, McMaster — an obvious tough guy — is telling him the opposite. The Washington Post (2017)

For a man who spoke in excruciating detail about COVID-19 in televised press conferences for more than a year, Professor Brett Sutton has few words to share about his latest achievement. The Sydney Morning Herald (2024)

Homeless Torontonians struggle to hold onto their belongings. Here are a few items they are careful to protect. Toronto Star (2023)

Luke Littler has insisted that he will stay 'level headed' and 'keep myself to myself' as he takes a few days off after becoming the youngest ever player to reach the World Darts Championship final. Daily Mail (2024)

Practice

Fill in each blank with either few or a few.

1. The museum was about to close, and there were only _____ visitors left inside.

2. _____ students understood the assignment, so the teacher decided to explain it once more.

3. Only _____ of the original cast members returned for the sequel.

4. There were _____ signs of life in the abandoned village.

5. After dinner, we'll go out for _____ minutes to enjoy the evening breeze.

6. She received _____ responses to her invitation, which made her sad.

7. Could you lend me _____ dollars?

8. Only _____ minutes remained on the clock, but that was enough time for the team to score.

9. She brought _____ friends to the party, and they were all very nice.

10. He managed to catch _____ hours of sleep before his early flight.

11. He had _____ resources, but he made the best of what he had.

12. There were only _____ apples left in the basket, but luckily it was enough to make the pie.

13. I enjoy my life here in Okinawa. I have _____ friends and we meet every day.

14. I met your brother _____ days ago.

15. The class was very small. There were only _____ students.

16. Do you mind if I ask you _____ questions?

Answer Key

1. a few    2. Few    3. a few    4. few    5. a few    6. few    7. a few    8. a few    9. a few    10. a few    11. few    12. a few    13. a few    14. a few    15. a few    16. a few

Recommended Further Reading

'Little' or 'A Little'?
'Less' or 'Fewer'?

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