“Few” vs. “A Few”: What a Difference an “A” Makes!

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.

Lynn
Syntax Training

 

21 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for highlighting this interesting aspect of language.

    It seems so obvious to me, as a native speaker of English, that ‘few’ and ‘a few’ are different. But of course, there’s no reason why that should be obvious, it’s just learnt.

    There’s a smaller, but still existent, difference between ‘little’ and ‘a little’. Compare:

    “The tennis coaching made a little difference to my serve”

    “The tennis coaching made little difference to my serve”

    I’d rather be coached by the first coach than the second!

  2. We adopted children from Ethiopia two years ago (ages 7 & 9 at the time), and this is one of those nuances of the English language that make for great dinner-time conversation. Helping them grasp English has been an eye-opener, and the experience helps me to be more careful with my communications at work.

  3. Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen this error before. I work with a programmer from India, but he speaks and writes English more fluently than most of the Americans around here do!

    I imagine that the distinction between “few” and “a few” has frustrated many a nonnative English speaker.

  4. Hi, Jacob. “A little” and “little” are good additional examples–thanks!

    What interests me about our examples is that the tiny difference communicates something very different. The impact can be similar to confusion with “can” and “can’t” or “now” and “not.”

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  5. Hi, Randy. You and your family members must have plenty of amusing examples of slightly twisted English. I imagine the explanations of why something is wrong can be challenging.

    When I use Spanish, the sounds of the words can get me into trouble. I remember asking for “ojos” rather than “huevos” for breakfast. That’s eyes rather than eggs!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Lynn

  6. Hi, Nina. Thanks for commenting. My experience is the same as yours with your colleague. Many non-native English speakers use the language beautifully. In fact, the woman I wrote about had a wonderfully rich vocabulary.

    Lynn

  7. I am an avid reader of your blog on Business Writing. I thank you for highlighting the subtle difference between ‘few’ and ‘a few’ with apt example. Till now I did not realize that the entire context differs in the usage of few and a few.

  8. The reason for missing a’s perhaps lies in the nature of Indian languages.

    Hindi (the Indian national language) and Marathi (the local Indian language I speak) have no articles equivalent of ‘a’ or ‘the’. To say “I saw a bird”, I use a word that translates as “one”, and I might say “I saw one bird”, which is not the same as “I saw a bird”!!. I cannot find equivalent of “the”. To say “I found the book”, I might use “that” instead of “the”.

    As you say, one must pay special attention to ‘a’ and ‘the’ while speaking or writing English.

  9. Nilima’s point is an interesting one. Non-native speakers often make mistakes where their own language makes no distinctions. For example, the Chinese language doesn’t use separate pronouns for “he” or “she.” Chinese people speaking English as a second language sometimes refer to a girl or woman as “he” or a boy or man as “she,” which is quite confounding to native English speakers. How could they get that wrong?! It’s a linguistic glitch, not a failure of perception.

  10. Hi, Nilima. Thank you so much for enlightening us about Hindi and Marathi. I believe your explanation about the absence of “a” and “the” in those languages is the key to my client’s dropping of the article before “few.”

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    Lynn

  11. Thanks a lot this was really enlightening experience. These are really small mistakes which go undiscovered in general conversations but are highlighted in formal conversations and are really embarrassing.

  12. That article was a real eye opener. You don’t easily get that kind of grammatical insight with the increase in blogs that use informal language.

    Many otherwise great writers end up being considered mediocre because of simple errors that they don’t even notice.

    Am an aspiring writer myself interested in business writing.

    Thanks Lynn, please keep giving us more of these tips. They can really help in improving our writing.

  13. Please count me in as an avid reader of this blog too. I’ve learned a lot here. Thank you, Lynn.

    By the way, these are my favorite posts because it’s not only utilizing correct words, there is also a right way to say things. Unfortunately, that is what grammar books do not teach, it has to be learned by observation and practice. Please keep on helping second language speakers to realize those small details that make a big difference.

  14. Claudia, thank you for your thoughtful words of appreciation. You are correct that grammar books often fall short. I could not find anything in my reference books about “few” and “a few.” Nor could I find a comparison of “them” and “those,” which I wrote about on September 5.

    I will continue to write about these topics. Thanks for your encouragement.

    Lynn

  15. Hi Lynn. I enjoyed this post. Perhaps you would be kind enough to write something about when to use definite vs. indefinite articles. It’s something that native speakers get right without thinking about, and I wondered if there were any hard and fast rules to teach people.

  16. In the past week two different US-based Indian colleagues used “few” and “little” when they meant “a few” and “a little.” I had to grasp their meaning from the context only. I sought a way to explain this and found your page, Lynn. I forwarded the link on to the colleague I know well (I hope he doesn’t mind; he’s probably spoken English most of his life). I also came across this page that described the distinction well: http://speakspeak.com/resources/english-grammar-rules/various-grammar-rules/few-a-few-little-a-little

    Lynn, thanks so much for your helpful words. I’ve just signed up for your newsletter.

    Jim Warhol

  17. Hi, Jim. I am glad you found this post helpful, and I appreciate your passing it on to your colleague.

    Thanks for the link to the helpful information on “few/a few” and “little/a little.” I have not heard anyone use “little” incorrectly yet. But I will be ready with your link when I do.

    I hope you enjoy the newsletter. Thanks for subscribing!

    Lynn

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