19

When we use a few, how many items are usually indicated? My intuition tells me it's something between 3 and 9, but what is the most common range for a few?

18

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in The Reader Over Your Shoulder, offer this “scale of approximate counting”:

one or two, two or three, a few, several, a dozen or so, a score or so, a dozen or two, a score or two, a few dozen, dozens, a hundred or so, a few score, scores, a hundred or two, a few hundred, hundreds, a thousand or so, etc.

So I’d think, abstractly, that a few might be three or four to six or seven. Fewer than several. But as Anderson Silva says, context is everything.

  • 2
    I've always appreciated the "counting systen" that consists of only "one, two, several, many". For most purposes of approximation, that covers the territory pretty well. – barbara beeton Feb 3 '13 at 21:35
  • @barbarabeeton Or if you have a particular need to be weaselly, "one, two, some". – StoneyB Feb 3 '13 at 21:53
18

Here, xkcd explains words for small sets.

A few: anywhere from 2 to 5. A handful: anywhere from 2 to 5. Several: anywhere from 2 to 5. A couple: 2 (but sometimes up to 5).

Source

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    I joined this site just to +1 you for the XKCD reference. – Ryan Amos Feb 4 '13 at 1:48
  • xkcd has a separate website where it explains why the comic is funny, and goes into more detail about the subject matter. For this one, see here. The title text (hidden text if you mouse over the comic on the source page) is brilliant: If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether "a couple" should always mean "two". As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree. – Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '18 at 2:14
11

IMHO, there is no rule, it really depends on the context and what you are talking about. For example:

A few people in a studium watching a show, there could be dozens, even hundreds of them, while a few things in a backpack could be just 3 or 4.

Another example:

  • Quite a few students from our high school go on to college.

Would you say it is less than 10?

IE, if it's not many, then it's a few.

Hope it helps.

  • However, I think it is safe to say in general that "a few" (not "quite a few" or "a fair few") means 2-6. – Jakob Weisblat Feb 3 '13 at 21:17
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    And I think there is no "in general". It's only safe to assume it's more than one. – Mr Lister Feb 3 '13 at 22:34
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    @Jake223: I think it's even safer to say that it's context dependent. :^) That said, in quite a few contexts, "a few" would mean a small number, probably under 10. That's how I'd probably interpret these remarks on the evening news: There were few survivors in the crash, a few prisoners escaped, a few people came to demonstrate. However, in the case of a few people left the stadium early, I'd think that could easily be as many as 30 or so, assuming the arena was full. – J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 10:41
4

The way I always understood it was:

For small amounts (e.g. less than 12)

  1. Where ONE was the number, then 'one' was the description.
  2. Where TWO was the number, then 'a couple' (or even a 'brace') was the description.
  3. Where THREE was the number, then 'a few' was the description. When using this terminology, however, inexactitude was implied - therefore it could include FOUR or FIVE, but THREE would be the expected number. I should note that where I am from (Ireland), the term 'a good few' would imply more again (even up to NINE or TEN) and indicate satisfaction with the number also. This can be compared to the more generally used 'only a few', or 'few', which could indicate dis-satisfaction.

For larger amounts (e.g. stadia attendance) the rule of three could be adapted to fractions - when only a third of the seats are filled, one could safely say the game was attended by 'few'. Obviously context is vital here, as you are still talking about several hundred - even thousand - people. You are not so much referring to how many were there, as demonstrating verbally how many were not. 'Few' in this instance is a negative term.

Another example of contextual usage would be in boxing or sparring, where someone would recieve or give 'a few' punches. No actual number is implied here - in fact, only a very general impression is implied - but suggests how well or poorly a fighter did over the entirety of the match.

Therefore, to answer your question, the actual numerical range indicated is only done so when dealing with already small amounts, and would generally be accepted to contain at least three, but allow for four or five. When using this term, inexactitude is a given and is indeed the primary implication when dealing with large numbers.

3

It's relative to the context. That context can be finite or infinite.

It is intuitively more than 1 (a border-line certainty) It is fewer or less than some or several, and definitely not many.

I would say, In a finite context, it is intuitively less than a tenth of a whole.

in an infinite context, it is less than a tenth of what ever upper limit expressed.

  • I might bend your fraction in the finite context to up to two-tenths, or even a quarter (as in, at the reception, most people selected chicken, but a few people had fish). However, I like the overall gist of your answer. – J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 10:46
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    To pick nits, I think you should use "definite" and "indefinite" contexts rather than "finite" and "infinite", since "infinite" is logically incapable of having an upper limit; but I also like the gist here. – Hellion Feb 4 '13 at 22:08
0

There is no exact quantification for the phrase "a few", since in general you are talking about a group, an amount of something may it be big or small, the closest I think is, 50% of the average can cover "a few". But then again this is not mathematically proven..

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