When to Use “Little” or “a Little” and “Few” or “a Few”

Few aspects of the English language can grow as convoluted as when to use few or a few, or little versus a little. This is one of the many rules that native English speakers simply pick up through usage of the language over time. Other folks are not sure how to use these words in writing, or are unsure of their use when speaking English as a second language.

The Word Meanings

To start, a quick discussion on the meaning of few and little: few is typically used as either a pronoun or an adjective, and is used to describe a small number of something. “The majority outweighed the few” and “There are few aspects of the English language…”, for instance, are both used correctly. Little, conversely, is almost exclusively used as an adjective, and is used to denote size, amount, or degree.

Using “Few” or “a Few”

To determine whether to use few or a few, first identify the type of noun it is modifying. If the noun it is modifying is a plural, countable noun (such as apples), few is the correct word to use. Using few on its own suggests a greater severity in the number of something, while pairing it with a suggests a larger quantity. Note, for instance, the change in tone between “He saved a few apples for his children” and “He saved few apples for his children.” One suggests the man saved a handful of apples, while the other suggests there are practically no apples at all.

Using “Little” or “a Little”

To determine whether to use little or a little, once again identify your noun. If the noun needing modification is a singular, uncountable noun (such as love), it will require the use of little. As is the case with few, using little on its own or in conjunction with a is subtle in the way it shifts the meaning of a sentence. As is also the case with few, the tone of little is more restrictive than the tone of a little. For instance, if a sentence reads “Tommy was given a little money for his birthday,” the reader will likely assume that Tommy was given a small but perfectly respectable sum. If, however, the sentence reads “Tommy was given little money for his birthday,” the reader is likely to assume that Tommy has received almost no money at all.

Considering Tone

The greatest determiner for the use of each of these words (or phrases) is your desired tone. There is a far greater negative connotation attached to both few and little, while a few and a little are lighter in their impact. All are technically used to describe a small amount, or a small thing, and will also be technically correct when used interchangeably—“few” or “a few” together, and “little” or “a little” together. The challenge, then, is not in the technical definition of the words, but in the connotations they possess.

For more usage tips and other English language skill practice, check out our FREE English Basics practice tests, study guides, and flashcards.

Few vs a Few and Little vs. a Little

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