Quantifiers: few or little?

In the last post on quantifiers we learnt about words we use to talk about a large quantity of something: much, many and a lot/lots of and talked about the difference between them.

Words we use to talk about small quantities include few and a few, little and a little.  There are also expressions like barely any, hardly any and less common, scarcely any.

Look at the following sentences and see if you can tell the difference between few and little:

Few teachers enjoy marking their students’ work.
There are only a few apples left on the tree.

I have little patience with politicians.
Why don’t you take a little sugar with your tea?

Did you notice that we use few with plural nouns, and we use little with singular uncountable nouns?

Now what about the difference between few/little and a few/a little?  Look at the following sentences and try to notice the rule:

The average parent has little control over how much television their children watch.
Few doctors visit patients in their homes these days.

Could you you put a little oil in the car before you leave?
John has said a few times that he would like to change jobs.

Few and little usually have a negative meaning.  They suggest ‘not as much/many as one would like’ or ‘ not as much/many as expected’.

A few and a little have a more positive meaning.    The meaning is similar to ‘some’, and gives the idea of ‘better than nothing’, ‘just enough’, ‘more than expected’ or ‘enough to be noticed’.

In informal style it is more common to use not many or not much instead of few or little.  Using the same examples as above:

The average parent doesn’t have much control…
Not many doctors will visit you in your home…

A related word is fewer, which we often confuse with less.  The meaning is the same but they are used differently.  See the following sentences:

There are fewer men than women working in our company.
I have less time than I used to to read novels.

Did you get it?  Fewer is used before plural words, and less before uncountable words.

For more details I recommend the following resources:

Un commentaire

  1. 13 juin 2009 à 12 h 20 min

    Very well explained. Now I have fewer doubts with the English grammar.

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