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"Few" vs. "A Few": One Letter Makes a Difference!

"Few" vs. "A Few": One Letter Makes a Difference!

You probably know the word “few,” meaning "not a lot," but did you know that adding “a” before it completely changes its nuance?

Even though it's a small change, it makes a big difference both in casual conversations and even in professional settings. That means it is something you should definitely learn and master. Let’s take a closer look at the proper ways to use both.

What’s the main difference?

A lonely woman with few friends sitting and looking out the window

Basically, the difference between “few” and “a few” is the difference between a positive and negative tone. Used by itself, “few” has the nuance of a very small amount of something. This usage is normal when you want to communicate a negative feeling. For example:

Few people are coming to the event.
Julia has few friends.

In both of these examples, the feeling is that the number is small and that it is a bad thing. The event sounds like it will be mostly empty, and Julia sounds lonely because there is almost no one she is friendly with. But what happens if we add “a” to each example?

A few people are coming to the event.
Julia has a few friends.

Suddenly, both of these statements sound much more positive, even if the actual number is still small. Although a large group of people will not attend the event, “a few” still sounds better than the first example.

Also, saying that Julia has "a few friends" means she has people to call and spend time with. Even if she isn't extremely popular, the second example feels much less lonely than the previous sentence.

Using “a few” in replies

A woman standing in front of a wall of books in a home library

When responding to questions, it is common to use “a few” if you are referring to a small number.

How many of these books have you read?
A few.

In other words, Alex read some of the books. Responding with “few” alone would sound unnatural; if Alex wanted to emphasize that the number of books she read is very small, she can instead say "Not many."

Another option for emphasizing a small number is adding "only," as in the following example:

I've read only a few of these books.

Expressions with “few”

Short, simple words often appear in many everyday expressions. Here are some common examples that include "few." 

Few and far between

This refers to something that does not happen or appear very often.

This is a pretty small town, so big events are few and far between here.
I don’t enjoy most science-fiction movies. The ones I really like are few and far between.

Quite a few

A large crowd of people at a live concert

Even though we’ve explained that "few" is used when a number or amount is small, this expression refers to a number that is relatively or surprisingly big.

We didn’t think he had many fans, but quite a few people came to his concert.
Surprisingly, that small town has quite a few famous restaurants.

Have a few

In very casual situations, “a few” can refer to alcoholic drinks, particularly beer.

You may be wondering how you can understand when it has this specific meaning, but if you are in a conversation that is related to drinking, it should be clear which meaning is appropriate.

I finish work in about 20 minutes. Do you wanna have a few at the bar with me? 
He’s been at the party for several hours, so he’s already had a few.

Chosen few

This refers to people who are part of a very small and special group. Members may be included because of things such as money, skill or connections to important people.

We are part of the chosen few who can try out the new video game before it is released to the public.
She is one of a chosen few who make enough money to live only by selling her artwork.


We’ve explained small differences between similar words many times on this blog. It’s a good reminder that you can do a lot of communication in English with only a small number of words. However, it’s important to know the various ways they can be used. 

The next time you want to use “few,” just decide if you want what you say to have a positive or negative feeling. Once you’ve decided that, making the correct choice is easy!