Study English Grammar: Different Meanings For The Word Few
Summary: Study English Grammar
You might ask why oh why are we studying English grammar today! I hate grammar it's boring and impossible to remember. It does not have to be! Just use our “Listen & Learn” approach to learning to speak English fluently.
Well, we were enjoying some everyday English conversation and guess what we heard being used a few times in a row, on the TV, then on the radio and then face to face. It was uncanny!
So today we will clarify the use of the word few and as usual we will do this in an easy to listen audio lesson I pack which full of useful English vocabulary. Listening to this lesson several times will help you store the information you hear in your long-term memory using a learning technique called “Spaced repetition”. You need not think about it or even know what it’s all about, just listen to the audio several times and your brain will automatically do the right thing for you.
Audio Transcript: Study English Grammar: Different Meanings For The Word Few
Hi there and welcome to this short podcast. If you’ve taken our course, our free course, The Seven Rules of Adept English, you’ll know about Rule Six, the ‘Helping Hand’ of Adept English. This is when we try and give you help with the difficult bits of learning the English language. Sometimes it’s the little words, which give you trouble when you study English grammar. They may not be difficult in their simple meaning and their simple use, but sometimes the same word is used in different contexts and it has slightly different meanings. So let’s take an example today.
The word ‘few’ - noun, pronoun and adjective
What about the word ‘few’, F-E-W? If you look up this word in the dictionary, you’ll see that it can be used as a noun, a pronoun or an adjective. When we study English grammar, I like to give you the correct grammatical terms, but if you prefer, you can just listen to the meanings instead – I always give examples. So let’s talk about ‘few’ as a pronoun first of all. You might say something like ‘There were sandwiches at the meeting, but I only ate a few’. So the ‘few’, F-E-W in that sentence stands in as a pronoun for ‘a few sandwiches’. Another example, one person might say ‘How many times have you driven a car?’ and the other person replies ‘A few’. In both cases, ‘a few’ means not very many, a small number – so ‘a small number of sandwiches’ or ‘a small number of times’.
If you use ‘few’ as a noun, then it’s quite formal language – and it means a small number of people. You might say something like ‘Few in the UK would be happy paying tolls on the roads’. That’s the same as saying ‘Not many people in the UK would be happy paying tolls on the roads’. So ‘few’ as a noun means ‘few people’. Another example ‘We have sent out lots of invitations, but few have responded’. So what’s the difference then between ‘few’ as noun and ‘few’ as pronoun? ‘Few’ as a noun means people and stands alone, whereas ‘few’ as a pronoun? It’s standing in for other things, things you’ve already mentioned – like the ‘few sandwiches’ before. The meaning is similar though...or the meaning is absolutely the same. It’s means ‘a small number’ and it’s always got to be things that you can count, like people, cars, sandwiches, strawberries. If it’s a noun you can’t count, like water, or money or milk, you’d say instead ‘a small amount of money’ or ‘not very much milk’. So ‘few’ must be things you can count.
Mainly you’ll see ‘few’ used as an adjective. ‘There were few people out today because of the weather’, or ‘Few children go to the theatre’ or ‘There are few trees in the garden’. So in each case, you’re saying there are some people, or children or trees, but not very many.
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Few, A Few and Quite A Few
OK, so far, so good. Now for some nuances which are the bits which make it more difficult. So if I use the example that I used before:-
‘There were few people out today because of the weather’ - it’s a very small number of people – perhaps it’s cold or rainy, whatever. You might [also] use ‘hardly any’. ‘There were hardly any people out today because of the weather’. So ‘few people’, ‘hardly any’ - it means the same.
But if I add in an ‘a’ in front of the few, it’s slightly different. ‘There were a few people out today….’, and I might end the sentence ‘despite the weather’. If I say ‘a few people’ that means more than if I just say ‘few people’. And if I went even further and I said ‘There were quite a few people out today, despite the weather’ - that would mean there were a surprising number of people out today, given how bad the weather is. So the meaning of the sentence changes. Let’s practice that with the other examples from above.
So ‘Few children go to the theatre’ would mean it’s quite rare, not very common to see a child at the theatre.
But if you say ‘A few children go to the theatre’ - there still aren’t many children at the theatre, but there are definitely some.
And if you say ‘Quite a few children go to the theatre’ - that means it’s surprising, there are more children at the theatre than you would think.
And the other example:-
‘There are few trees in the garden’ - perhaps there’s 2 or 3? It probably means ‘not as many as you would expect’, ‘there are few trees in the garden...’
But if you say ‘There are a few trees in the garden’ - maybe that sounds like 4 or 5?
And ‘There are quite a few trees in the garden’ - well, that means there are more trees than you would expect.
Few to mean a moderate amount
Sometimes we use ‘few’ with time and it means a moderate amount. So you might hear:-
The weather is sunny for the next few days.
We’ve been on holiday to all kinds of places in the last few years.
So it’s not being used there to mean a tiny amount, it’s being used to mean a qualified amount. It’s not a lot of days, it’s not a lot of years, but it’s certainly more than one.
FEW TO MEAN 'A LOT'
There are some times when people use ‘few’ and it’s used to minimise the amount. They probably mean more in reality, but they’re making it sound less.
‘Let’s go out for a few drinks’ – actually, that could mean quite a lot of drinks.
Or ‘I went shopping and I only bought a few pairs of shoes!’
Of course, you can change ‘few’ and you can say ‘fewer’ and also ‘fewest’. So you would use ‘fewer’, F-E-W-E-R when you were comparing two examples. So you might say ‘The supermarket up the road has fewer parking spaces than the supermarket in town’. Or ‘One of my cats catches fewer mice than the other’. Or ‘My daughter has fewer pairs of shoes than my son’. Some people in the UK get this wrong. And they might say ‘My daughter has less pairs of shoes than my son’ - but that’s grammatically incorrect. You can only use ‘less’ if you’re using it with a noun you can’t count - so less traffic, less coffee, less air, less water, but fewer trees, fewer people, fewer cups of coffee. People in the UK sometimes need to study English grammar themselves!
And finally, if you’re comparing three or more quantities of something, you might use ‘fewest’, F-E-W-E-S-T and that means the smallest number of three or more. So ‘Of my three children, my elder daughter eats the fewest sweets’. Or ‘Of all my friends, she is the one who has made the fewest mistakes’.
So there you are – more information on how the word ‘few’ is used - to help you study English grammar. Listen to this podcast a number of times. It’ll help you with the word ‘few’, but it will also help you memorise all the other words in this podcast as well.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
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