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The Difference Between Few and a Few

We use the word few when we want to talk about the quantity of something. Usually, we
use it when we want to talk about a small quantity:

Few members of the family leave their hometown each year.

In the sentence above, we used few to indicate that only one or two members of the family
leave town—most of them stay put. However, if we were to add “a” to few, we would be
saying something else:

A few members of the family leave their hometown each year.

Here we’re saying that some members of the family leave their hometown. It’s still not a lot
of them, but the emphasis is on the fact on that there are some who do leave, and not that
their number is small. Here’s another example:

I have many friends; I’ve known few of them since high school.

I have many friends; I’ve known a few of them since high school.

In the first sentence, we are saying that, although we have a lot of friends, we haven’t
known them for very long—there’s only a small number of them we’ve known since high
school. In the second sentence, we are saying that we have many friends and some of them
are really old friends—we’ve known them since high school.

The exception to these usage rules is a few in the phrase quite a few. That phrase is used to
indicate the opposite of a few. Quite a few means a lot:

I have many friends; I’ve known quite a few of them since high school.

Difference Between Little and a Little

Little and a little follow the same pattern as few vs. a few. The only difference is that we use
few and a few with countable nouns in the plural form, and we use little and a little with
uncountable nouns:
We had little time to prepare before we had to go.

We had a little time to prepare before we had to go.

In the first example, we are saying that we didn’t have a lot of time before we had to go. In
the second one, we’re saying that we had some time, albeit not a lot of it, to prepare.

To make it easier, you could think about it as you would about the proverbial glass of
water—you use few and little when you want to point out that the glass is half empty
(there’s little water in the glass) and you use a few and a little when you want to point out
that the glass is half full (at least there’s some of it). By the way, you should use little and a
little with “water” because it’s an uncountable noun.

Examples

Federal and state authorities are beefing up cyber defenses against potential electronic
attacks on voting systems ahead of U.S. elections on Nov. 8, but few are taking new steps to
guard against possible civil unrest or violence.

Yahoo News

But a few women who have recently given birth suffer from post natal insomnia, when they
can’t fall back to sleep after midnight feeds. The Daily Mail

Before this, I had studied materials for solar panels and had done some work in laser
processing, but I had little interest in laser welding.

PhysOrg

Nothing to really dent the drought, but nice to get a little water in the ground.

Alabama News Center