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When I'm saying the sentence

"There are (a) very few animals there"

should I add it an article (after the word "are") or not?

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As a native speaker I can say that the related(?) construction There are a (very) great many animals there is fine. Thus, although I wouldn't write a very few animals in your sentence, I can't explain why not. In other situations it would be acceptable. – AlanCarmack Mar 8 at 7:27
    
I was taught that the 'a' article is not applicable to plural at all. – Alexander.Furer Mar 8 at 11:08
    
@Alexander.Furer Certainly you can have "a few animals" in some place. But I think the construction "a very few" is rare enough that unless you know exactly why you want to use it in a particular sentence, it's probably the wrong phrase to use. – David K Mar 8 at 20:22
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@wyatt I think it depends on the context. If somebody says "There are no animals on that island" and you know that there are three or four different animals on it you can quite easily say "There are a very few animals there". That sounds completely fine to me. – Araucaria Mar 10 at 16:07

This question turned out to be tricky. I feel that in your example one should say:

There are very few animals there.

because the noun 'animals' is plural. If you delete the word "very", however, you can say:

There are a few animals there.

which will mean 'there are some animals there', or

There are few animals there.

which will mean 'there are not many animals there'.

"A few" and "quite a few" are set expressions meaning "some" and "many". The set expression "a few" seems not to admit the adverb of degree "very" in this particular context:

There are a very few animals there. [WRONG]
There are a very few plates on the table. [WRONG]

However, thanks to Maulik's comment, I looked and found examples of "a very few" in literature:

There are a very few rivers and brooks and waters in Weymouth. There are many apple-trees, and pear-trees, and vegetables, but a few plum-trees, and peach-trees and grape-vines in Weymounth. (From an essay composed by a deaf boy, 1820)

We can domesticate and/or train a very few animals to obey our commands in very limited ways, but “putting down” a dangerous animal is never punishment. (Richard Rowling, 2002)

To live within limits, to want one thing, or a very few things, very much and to love them dearly, cling to them, survey them from every angle, become one with them — that is what makes the poet, the artist, the human being. — Goethe (Troy Jollimore, Love's Vision, 2011)

In a very few minutes she reappeared, having scarcely allowed the two others time enough to get through a few short sentences in her praise, after Thorpe had procured Mrs. Allen's admiration of his gig; and then receiving her friend's parting good wishes, they both hurried downstairs. (Jane Austen)

I have now finished your book ('Das Bewegungsvermogen der Pflanzen.' Vienna, 1881.), and have understood the whole except a very few passages. (A letter by Charles Darwin)

There are a very few places where passages have been cut out of the diary, perhaps by HCS herself or by a descendant. (Hannah Callender Sansom et al., 2010)

So the issue is not as simple as it seemed to me at first. In some contexts, it's clearly okay to say "a very few". Maybe someone will explain the exact reason for this in a separate answer.

My answer is incomplete, and I'd like to scrap it, but I'll leave it for now because of all the literature quotations.


P.S. The Google Ngram for "There are a very few / There are very few" shows that the version with "a" has been much less common (kudos to FumbleFingers):

enter image description here


Related:

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You mean 'a very few animals' is ungrammatical? – Maulik V Mar 8 at 6:09
    
@MaulikV - I did a search and now I'm not really sure. Thanks for bringing this up, Maulik! – CowperKettle Mar 8 at 6:13
    
@MaulikV - the jury is still out. This might be an interesting question. – CowperKettle Mar 8 at 6:16
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I'd say there are very few places where the phrase "a very few" is appropriate to use; but as evidenced by several of the quotations cited in the answer above, if you know the language well, there are a very few places where that phrase can be used to good effect. – David K Mar 8 at 20:29
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Sorry, but I have to -1 your excellently written post, because it says that there are a very few plates on the table etc is wrong. – Araucaria Mar 10 at 15:58
up vote 10 down vote
+100

Short answer

If people expect that there are a large number of animals there, and you know that there are some animals, although not very many, then you could say:

There are a very few animals there.

However, if you want to stress not the fact that the animals are there, but that there are not many, then you should say:

  • There are very few animals there.

The phrase a very few is relatively rare, but it is perfectly fine, and very effective if you use it correctly.

Full answer

Few and a few are words that have a Determiner function in noun phrases. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, regards few as a determinative and a few as a lexical determinative (which I understand to mean an idiom which behaves like a determinative).

Few and a few look similar and they both give the impression that we are talking about a small number of items. However, they are very different, and getting them mixed up can cause serious problems. For example, using the wrong one can make your sentence false.

Few

Few is a negative word. It has a negative meaning, and it behaves like a negative word syntactically.

The word few means not many. This is its literal meaning. It also implies—give us the idea—that we are talking about a number greater than two. However, this is just an idea that it gives us. It is not part of the literal meaning of the word. If I have a hundred criminals in a prison and I say:

  • Few criminals will escape from here.

Then I am saying that not many criminals will escape. However, my sentence only implies that there will be a small number of escapees. There may be no escapees at all. So if no criminals escape, my sentence is true. If two criminals escape, my sentence is true and if five criminals escape, then my sentence is true (if we agree that five is not a large number). However, if ninety criminals escape, my sentence is false. It is not true that few criminals escaped because it is not true that not many criminals escaped.

Now I can modify this word few with an adverb like relatively or very. If I say:

  • Very few criminals will escape.

Then I am lowering the upper limit on the number of escapees. Say we agree that eight or nine escapees is not a large number, but ten is (considering there are only a hundred criminals altogether). If I think nine criminals will escape, I can say few criminals .... But if I say very few, the listener will think that there are less than nine, maybe four, for example.

We can show that few is a negative word, because negative sentences always take positive question tags, and positive sentences usually take negative tags:

  • Very few prisoners will escape, will they?
  • *Very few prisoners will escape, won't they? (ungrammatical)

A few

A few is a positive word, with a positive meaning, and which has the syntax we expect from words in positive clauses. The word a few means more than two. It strongly implies—gives us the idea— that the number of things is not very large. But this is just an idea it gives us. It is not part of its literal meaning.

If I am inspecting a prison which has a hundred criminals, and I can see that there are some problems with the security, I might say:

  • A few criminals are going to escape from here.

When I say this sentence I am guaranteeing more than two escapees. If nobody escapes then my sentence is false. If three escape, my sentence is true. Although I have only guaranteed a small number, if they all escape, my sentence is still true as well.

Now, I can modify the word few inside the phrase a few, using the words very, good or fair. If someone denies that any criminals will escape, then I could say:

  • I bet you £10 a very few do manage to escape.

Now, here the word very is lowering our expectation of the upper end of the range of possible escapees. I am still guaranteeing more than two, but I am lowering the expected upper limit on the number of escapees. But notice that this is only an implication. It is not a guarantee. If the person who said that no one will escape takes my bet, then if everybody escapes, they will still have to pay me ten pounds. (They might still say You were wrong about it only being a very few though—as they give me my ten pounds!)

Notice when we use the words good or fair we are increasing our understanding of the lower limit, not the upper limit. Unlike when we used the word very, this does indeed affect the truth conditions of the sentence. If I say:

  • I guarantee a good few criminals will escape.

Then if only three criminals escape, everyone will agree that I was wrong. My sentence turned out to be false.

We can show that a very few has a positive meaning, because it normally takes negative question tags. A positive tag will sound unusual and will have a special meaning:

  • A very few criminals managed to escape, didn't they? (normal tag)
  • A very few criminals managed to escape, did they? (marked - sounds confrontational)

Entailments

We can show that a very few does not mean the same thing as very few. The phrase very few means not many or perhaps not many at all. If I say:

  • Not many people here eat animals.
  • Very few people here eat animals.

These both mean the same thing. This sentence guarantees that if we substitute the word animal for a more specific type of animal, the sentence is guaranteed to be true:

  • Very few people here eat monkeys.

So the more general statement guarantees (or "entails") the truth of the more specific statement. You cannot not eat animals without also not eating monkeys.

However, if I say:

  • A very few people here eat animals.

This means I am guaranteeing a positive number more than two. I have lowered your expectation of the higher number in the possible range. But I have guaranteed something and not denied it. In this case, I cannot substitute a more specific word for the noun animals. My general statement does not entail a more specific one. Just because it is true that A very few people here eat animals it does not mean that:

  • A very few people here eat monkeys.

People can eat animals without eating monkeys!

The Original Poster's question

If you want to stress that there are some animals there and people think there aren't any, you could say:

  • There are a few animals there.

If you want to do this but you also want to show that you only commit to the fact that there is a very small number, you can say:

  • There are a very few animals there.

However, if people are expecting that maybe there are quite a lot of animals, and you want to stress that there are not many, then you should probably say:

  • There are few animals there.

And if you think the number of animals is much, much smaller than people expect, then you can say:

  • There are very few animals there.

Conclusion

It can be very important not to confuse a very few with very few!



Grammar Note

Here is the entry from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston & Pullum, 2002. Cambridge University Press:

enter image description here

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In the beginning, you say "people expect that there are a large number of animals here", but closer to the end you say "people think there aren't any". Do both conditions applicable to "a very few"? – CowperKettle Mar 12 at 9:11
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@CowperKettle There are two parts, I think. There's the stressing that the things exists, and then the implication that there aren't many. So normally one of these is going to have some kind of 'concession' effect. So where people think there is a big number of animals there, the fact that you say ''there are a very few animals there'' is correcting the number impression but agreeing that some are there. In the case where people think there aren't any, you're correcting the impression that there aren't any, but also saying 'you were not very wrong, because there are only a few'. ... – Araucaria Mar 12 at 12:39
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@CowperKettle So when you use a very few in an existential construction, or one with a similar meaning there is some kind of 'but' implied. Which way the 'but' works depends on the context. So it can mean either "There are some, but there are only a few" or alternatively it can mean "There are only a few, but there are some". So in your Darwin example he's saying "There were some passages that I didn't understand - but there was only a very small number of them". – Araucaria Mar 12 at 12:43
    
If I have some criminals in a prison and I say: "Only a few criminals will escape from here." and nobody escapes, is my sentence true or false? (I'd heard that only a few is a less formal equivalent for few. Thought I'd check it with you.) – Færd Apr 3 at 10:23
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@Fard I'm not sure they're absolutely equivalent, but that sounds roughly correct to me. Only means something like not apart from x, but doesn't entail X. So only a few should mean not apart from a few, which is more or less what few means. – Araucaria Apr 3 at 11:17

"So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys - to woo women - and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”

― N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society

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While I agree with the general statement about written English (especially) that very is an overused word and often adds little to one's written text and thus can often be avoided; yet there are idiomatic expressions of which very is a part and the OP asks about one, and I've pointed out another (a very great many animals, for example). – AlanCarmack Mar 8 at 17:41

"There are (a) very few animals there" According to me the above sentence isn't proper. The word"VERY" does not do well here. Say "There are few animals there" Or say "There are a few animals there" 1st sentence stands for some larger number. 2nd sentence stands for just 2 or 3 numbers. http://www.grammarly.com/answers/questions/99-the-difference-between-a-fewfew-and-a-littlelittle/

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