(A) Few | Definition, Uses & Examples

Few is a word meaning “not many” or “a small number of.” It’s used to refer to a nonspecific quantity of countable nouns (e.g., “few books”). Depending on how it’s used, “few” can be grammatically classified as a determiner, adjective, noun, or indefinite pronoun.

Few doesn’t refer to a specific number, and its correct use depends on context. For example, if you’re discussing something there are millions of, “few” could reasonably be used to refer to several hundred. If you’re discussing something there are forty of, “few” could be used to refer to three or four.

Examples: Few in a sentence
Very few people have been to the South Pole.

Few bank employees have access to the vault.

My coworkers and I touch base a few times each week.

The restaurant has quite a few vegetarian options.

Note
In some contexts, such as academic writing, few may be considered too vague, and you may need to use a more precise alternative.

  • Few patients reported negative side effects.
  • Three patients reported negative side effects.

Few vs. a few

Few and a few are sometimes used interchangeably, but this is a mistake.

  • Few means “not many” and is used to emphasize a (relative) lack of something.
  • A few means “some” and is used to positively emphasize that the number to which it refers is more than two (although still unlikely to be a very large number).
Examples: A few in a sentence
A few of Mark’s friends are visiting town this weekend.

There are a few different routes to the airport.

My advisor recommended a few helpful academic resources.

Note
When a few is preceded by the adverb “only,” the meaning becomes more negative again, making it roughly equivalent to few (e.g., “Bear in mind that there are only a few hours before the guests arrive”).

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Quite a few

Quite a few is positive in meaning—even more so than a few. It means “a lot” or “a relatively large number.”

Examples: Quite a few in a sentence
Jonah drinks quite a few cups of coffee each day.

Tanya has labeled quite a few files incorrectly.

A couple vs. a few

In its strictest sense, a couple is used to refer to two people or things. However, it’s often used interchangeably with a few to refer to a small but nonspecific number of people or things. Like a few, this phrase should be avoided in academic writing, as it’s overly vague.

A couple is usually followed by the preposition “of” and the noun indicating what there are a small number of.

Examples: A couple in a sentence
Petra has a couple of ideas for her new novel.

Bear with me while I try to find you a couple of seats.

Few vs. several

People sometimes confuse few and several, but they don’t mean the same thing.

  • Few means “not many” and is used to emphasize the relative scarcity or lack of something.
  • Several means “some” or “more than two but not many.” Its emphasis is positive rather than negative.
Examples: Several in a sentence
There are several cars parked in the driveway.

While there are several villains in the book, there is only one protagonist.

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Few vs. little

Few and little have similar meanings, but they differ grammatically:

  • Few means “not many” and is used to refer to the quantity of plural countable nouns (e.g., books, houses, leaves, people).
  • Little means “not much” and is used to refer to the amount or degree of uncountable nouns (e.g. water, information, rice, copper).
Examples: Little in a sentence
Tatiana’s argument makes little sense.

Raul claims to speak French, but I suspect he has very little knowledge of the language.

Note
Uncountable nouns can’t be pluralized, so little (meaning “not much”) will always refer to a singular noun (e.g., “little money”).

If you want to know more about commonly confused words, definitions, common mistakes, and differences between US and UK spellings, make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations, examples, and quizzes.

Frequently asked questions

What is a synonym for “few”?

Some synonyms and near synonyms for few include:

  • A minority of
  • A small number of
  • Hardly any
  • Not many
What does “a few” mean?

A few means “some” or “a small number of.” When a few is used along with the adverb “only,” it means “not many” (e.g., “only a few original copies of the book survive”).

How much is a few?

Although a few doesn’t refer to any specific number, it’s typically used to refer to a relatively small number that’s more than two (e.g., “I’m going home in a few hours”).

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Ryan, E. (2023, March 13). (A) Few | Definition, Uses & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/definitions/few/

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.