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What are the differences among “little”, “few”, “a little” and “a few”?

Are “little” and “few” synonyms?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

'Few' is mainly used when talking about the number of 'count nouns', such as 'dogs'. You can say

Few dogs make good friends with cats!

to mean that not many dogs make good friends with cats. But if you said

Little dogs make good friends with cats!

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'.

There was a flood, but little water actually got into the house.

means that not a lot of water got into the house (thank goodness!). On the other hand,

There was a flood, but few water actually got into the house.

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:

John had little reason to dislike Jim.

Jim had few reasons to dislike John.

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).

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You might want to include in your answer the difference between "few" and "a few", "little" and "a little". – fluffy Aug 18 '14 at 13:11
Good answer. +1 for the first example sentence :) – Maulik V Aug 19 '14 at 4:50


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 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 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.)

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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.

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Basically these are two questions:

  1. Difference between little and few
  2. Difference between little and a little, and same way, difference between few and a few

little and few: Both are Quantifiable Adjectives, or Adjectives of number. The difference is that little qualifies something that isn't countable, and few qualifies countable things.

For example:

I've little money to spend.

There is little milk in the jug.

Where as,

I've few cents to spend.

There are few liters of milk in the jug.

So anything you can add numbers to will be qualified with few, and if not, it will be qualified with many. You can never say 1 milk or 2 milk, so you would use little here, but you can say 1 packet of milk or 2 packets of milk, so you would use few here as: I was left with only a few packets of milk.

Difference between few and a few:

few is same as a few but it gives you a negative sense; when you are left with negligible amount of things. For example,

She is desperate; she has few friends, and most of the time, she lives alone.

a few conveys that the amount is enough, and the sense is positive.

I've a few hundred dollars in my pockets, and that would be enough for the rest of trip.

So whenever you have sufficient amount, and/or you want to convey a positive message, you should use a few/little, and for negligible amount or too-short-to-do type of things, you should just use few/little.

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