Using ‘(a) little & (a) few’

(Explanation about the quantifiers ‘little / a little’ and ‘few / a few’)

Table of contents – ‘little & few’

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Use of ‘a little’ and ‘a few’
  2. Further explanations and exercises

How and when are ‘a little’ and ‘a few’ used?

When little and few are used, it is essential to consider the countability of the noun referred to. Briefly speaking, the quantifier ‘a little’ (with and without the article ‘a’) is needed for small quantities with uncountable nouns. ‘A few’ (with and without the article ‘a’), on the other hand, requires countable nouns in the plural if the speaker wants to express a small number. Be careful, however: if you use ‘little’ and ‘few’ without ‘a’, the meaning changes. In detail, there are the following points to note:

  • First, although these quantifiers are used with count and non-count nouns, the article ‘a’ has no influence on the corresponding noun:
    • Use of ‘a little’ and ‘a few’ in particular:
      • “I’ve got a little time left. Let’s have a coffee.”
        • with uncountable noun
      • “I’m going bowling with a few friends.”
        • with countable noun
    • Using ‘little’ and ‘few’, that is, without the article ‘a’ in detail:
      • “He gave me little information so I actually don’t know what to do.”
        • uncountable noun
      • “Only few tourists come during the rainy season because of the bad weather.”
        • countable noun
  • And now compare the difference in meaning of both quantifiers with and without the use of the articlea’:
    • There is a difference in meaning between ‘few’ and ‘a few’:
      • “There are a few cars on the street. It may take a while to get there.”
        • The speaker wants to express that there are indeed some cars on the street.
      • “There are few cars on the street. You should get there in time without any problems.”
        • This time, the speaker wants to express that there are not many cars on the street; there is not much traffic.
    • Likewise, ‘little’ and ‘a little’ differ in the following way:
      • “I have a little money, and I can afford to go on holiday.”
        • In this statement, the speaker wants to express that there is some money left. The person is not broke.
      • “I have little money, and I can’t afford to go on holiday.”
        • Here, the speaker has almost no money.
  • Information: In spoken language, it is relatively common to use ‘a bit of’ instead of ‘a little’. Accordingly, such examples occur very often:
    • “I think I have a bit of a problem with my computer.”
    • “How would you like your coffee? – With a bit of sugar, please.”

Further explanations related to ‘Using ‘(a) little’ and ‘(a) few’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Use of the quantifiersa little’ and ‘a few’ in English’ and could therefore be interesting too: