I recently worked on business writing with a manager from India who spoke several Indian languages as well as English. She made an error that I have since noticed in another Indian manager's writing, so I thought it was worth writing about here.
It involved using "few" when she meant "a few." Here are examples:
- I have had few conversations with my director.
- We have received few emails from the New York office.
- I heard from few close friends.
- We planned few demos for the customer.
- I recommend making few changes to the procedure.
The word "few" in those examples emphasizes the small number. For example, the sentences "I have had few conversations with my director" and "We have received few emails from the New York office" suggest a lack of communication. But that was not what the manager intended. She meant "I have had some conversations with my director" and "We have received some emails from the New York office." "Some" can be expressed with the phrase "a few"–but not with the word "few."
The sentence "I heard from few close friends" suggests that my close friends have abandoned me. But "I heard from a few close friends" suggests that a close circle of people have communicated with me.
Similarly, "We planned few demos for the customer" suggests that we don't care about the customer. Why else would we plan few demos? In contrast, "a few demos" sounds like good customer service.
"I recommend making few changes to the procedure" suggests that I like it the way it is. That's very different from "I recommend making a few changes," that is, "some changes."
If English is your second, third, fourth, or fifth language, remember this: "Few" means "not many"; it emphasizes the small number. "A few" means "some."
That little "a" makes a big difference.
Have you noticed this error in speech and writing? Please tell your story.