What are the differences among “little”, “few”, “a little” and “a few”?
Are “little” and “few” synonyms?
'Few' is mainly used when talking about the number of 'count nouns', such as 'dogs'. You can say
to mean that not many dogs make good friends with cats. But if you said
this would suggest that dogs that are small (cat-sized, perhaps?) make good friends with cats.
On the other hand, 'little' is used when talking about the amount of 'mass nouns', such as 'water'.
means that not a lot of water got into the house (thank goodness!). On the other hand,
is not a valid sentence.
Sometimes you can use either to produce equivalent sentences, but usually 'few' will precede a plural noun and 'little' will proceed a singular (mass) noun. For example:
Both of these sentences mean that they haven't given the other much cause to dislike them.
A little and a few both mean some, but the above rules still apply here. So you would say a few dogs and a little water, but not a little dogs or a few water (which aren't valid sentences).
Few is used with countable nouns (nouns which can be counted), such as coin(s), sweet(s), and animal(s).
Little is used with uncountable nouns (nouns that cannot be counted), such as milk, time, and money.
FEW vs. A FEW
Few emphasises the lack of something.
There are few sweets left in the jar. (We should be careful not to eat them too quickly because they are almost gone.)
A few emphasises that something still remains.
We have a few minutes left in class. Do you have any questions? (We still have time so we should use it.)
LITTLE vs. A LITTLE
Little emphasises the lack of something.
We have little money right now. We should got out for dinner another time. (We should be careful and use the money wisely because there is not much).
A little emphasises that something still remains.
There's a little ice cream left; who will eat it? (There's not enough ice cream to save it or put it back in the freezer so it should be eaten.)
To add to rafil99's statements:
"FEW vs. A FEW
"Few" emphasises the lack of something...
"A few" emphasises that something still remains."
This distinction leads to fully opposite meanings to the phrases formed by preceding each of the above with "quite".
"There are quite a few apples in the bin" or "There are quite a few reasons for this" will mean that there are a lot of, or many, apples or reasons.
The constructions with "quite few" are more limited because of idiom; the above sentences would be slightly odd with "quite few". At any rate:
"The apples we have are quite few in number" or "The reasons for this are quite few" will mean that there are only a small number of apples or reasons.
You could also substitute "very few" for "quite few"; but "very a few" is not a proper phrase. To say "a very few" would mean the same as "very few", although the "a" isn't usually called for. Also, "very few" would work perfectly well where I said "quite few" would be slightly odd.
"There are very few apples in the bin" or "There are very few reasons for this" will mean that there are only a small number of apples or reasons.
The main point is that while "few" basically, and in general, refers to a small quantity, "quite a few" refers to a large quantity.