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This week’s blog post concerns two words that students often get mixed up – few and little.

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Few is the opposite of many (and “a lot of”) and little is the opposite of much (and “a lot of”). For example:

— There are few people in a small village.
— I’ve got few pens in my pocket.
— Few restaurants have gluten-free bread.
— He drinks little coffee.
— I have little money in my savings account.
— My boss, unfortunately, has very little patience.

We use few for things we can count, and little for things we can’t count. Consider the examples above: people, pens, and restaurants. They’re all things we can count. Coffee, money, and patience – things we can’t count.
But with the addition (or removal) of the article ‘a,’ we change the meaning completely. When we say ‘a few,’ it means “some, but not many.” However, saying only “few” is the same as saying “not enough,” or “fewer than expected.” Let’s have a look at some examples:

— Excuse me, sir, I’ve got a few questions.
(I have some questions, but not a lot)
— He needs to clarify a few things at the meeting.
(Some things to clarify, but not many)
— Few people can speak Esperanto.
(Not enough, or fewer people than we expect)
— For a rich football superstar, she’s got relatively few cars.
(We expect her to have more since she’s very rich)

The difference between a little and little is the same. However, we use a little and little for things we can’t count. A little means “some, but not much,” whereas little means “not enough,” or “less than expected.” Some examples of this difference:

— I have little money in my savings account.
(You expect me to have more; not enough)
— My boss, unfortunately, has very little patience.
(We’d expect him to have more; not enough)
— I can help you later, I’ve got a little free time in the afternoon.
(Some time, but not much)
— Relax, I only had a little whiskey. You’re such a teetotaler.
(Some whiskey, but not much)

As we can see, adding (or taking away) the article ‘a’ changes the meaning quite a bit. So, be careful! Just remember exactly what it is you want to say, and then you’ll know whether you need to use the article ‘a’ or not. Practice with the exercise!
A. Edstrom

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