The quick answer to this question is… YES… there is a difference, and although the word is a small one, the difference is enormous!
In fact, this is a very common mistake students make in their ESL classes, they use the word “few” when the really mean “a few”.
Take a look at these examples:
- She has had few talks with her teacher.
- I have received few emails from the Alabama headquarters.
- Nathan heard from few dear friends.
- They planned few demonstrations for the client.
- We recommend making few changes to the test.
In the above, the word “few” points out the small number of: talks, emails, friends, demonstrations, and changes.
Is this correct? Could be, but there could also be a mistake in meaning caused by lack of knowledge of the English language.
Here is why:
The first two sentences – “She has had few talks with her teacher” and “I have received few emails from the Alabama headquarters” – seem to be saying that there is a shortage of communication, when that was probably not the intention.
Perhaps what the person wanted to say was that:
- She has had some talks with her teacher, and
- I have received some emails from the Alabama headquarters.
“Some” means the same as “a few”, but it is different from “few”.
The third sentence above – “Nathan heard from few dear friends” – seems to indicate that Nathan has been neglected by his friends; however, the sentence:
- Nathan heard from a few dear friends
… Implies that some people that are close and special to him have contacted him.
In the same way, the fourth sentence – “They planned few demonstrations for the client” – seems to be saying that they don’t care about this client, but if instead you said:
- They planned a few demonstrations for the client
… It would give the idea of great interest in the client.
And finally, the fifth sentence – “We recommend making few changes to the test” – seems to imply that the test was fine as it was and that you all approved it. It is very different to say:
- We recommend making a few changes to the test
… This means the test needs to be changed to improve.
If you are taking ESL classes, discuss this with your teacher and remember it like this:
“Few” stands for “not many”; it calls attention to the small quantity.
“A few” stands for “some”.
BIG difference coming from such a small “a”, don’t you think?