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A little is known about the author of this book.

I was asked to find the error in the sentence above. I thought there is no error in the sentence and told the same. But a few people are insisting that a little is incorrect. It should be replaced with little since it has negative connotation.

I couldn't understand how they can say it has negative connotation without further context.

I believe the sentence above is correct grammatically but has different meaning from the sentence with little.

Am I wrong? Did you find the sentence ungrammatical? Can you please clarify?

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Both examples are technically grammatical:

  1. A little is known about the author of this book.
  2. Little is known about the author of this book.

However, the second sentence is much more idiomatic and likely to be said. Little is known about X is a common way to phrase things, but the version with a little is not commonly said, so it's not really surprising that people would consider it a mistake.

People tend to expect things to fit the patterns they're used to hearing, and if you say something that almost fits a pattern they know, they're likely to think you made a mistake. If they heard sentence 1, they'd probably think you meant to say sentence 2, even if both versions are technically grammatical.


Both a little and little are quantifiers which express small numbers. So what's the difference?

  • A little is a positive paucal1 quantifier, indicating that a small amount does exist. The emphasis is on the existence of a quantity, even if it's small.
  • Little is an approximate negative quantifier, expressing that an amount is almost but usually not quite zero. The emphasis is on the lack of existence, even though a very small amount may exist.

As a negator, little licenses negative polarity items:

Very little is known at all about the author of this book.

This would be ungrammatical with a little, which is positive:

*A very little is known at all about the author of this book. ← ungrammatical

The same is true of a few (positive paucal quantifier) and few (approximate negative quantifier).


Notes:

 1 From Latin paucus 'few; little', indicating a relatively small number.

  • Suppose this sentence is given in an exam to find the error. Do I have to say the sentence is ungrammatical and the error is in a little since most of the people expect that? – Omkar Reddy Nov 24 '16 at 2:52
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    @Nagendra It depends on how the question is phrased. In my opinion both sentences are clearly grammatical, so if they asked whether it was ungrammatical, I would say no. However, if they asked you to pick the best improvement for the sentence, I would say replacing A little is known about with Little is known about is definitely an improvement. – snailcar Nov 24 '16 at 6:07
  • They just asked me to find whether there is any error in the sentence. That's why I said no error. Thanks for clearing up my doubts. – Omkar Reddy Nov 24 '16 at 6:34
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Here we speak about information and it is uncountable so it's not 'a little information' but 'little information'.

Read it as:

  • Little information is known about the author of this book. Correct
  • A little information is known about the author of this book. Incorrect

When we say 'a little' or 'a few' we mean a small amount, but it's enough:

  • John: Let's go out tonight.
  • Lucy: Okay. I have a little money, enough for the cinema at least.

On the other hand, 'little' or 'few' usually give us a different impression. These also mean a small amount, but this time the amount is almost nothing. If the noun is something that we want (like money or friends) then using little or few means that we dont have enough:

  • John: Let's go out tonight.
  • Lucy: Sorry, I have little money. I really can't afford to go out.

Of course, if we use 'few' or 'little' with a noun that we don't want, then it can have a positive meaning. It's good to have nearly no problems, for example:

  • There have been few problems with the new system, thankfully!
  • Luckily, there is little crime in my town.
  • I'm so pleased that I have few arguments with my family.
  • It's great that there's been very little bad weather this month.

Source: http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/a-little-a-few.html

We use little with uncountable nouns. We use few with plural countable nouns. They are used in formal contexts:

  • I’m not very happy about it but I suppose I have little choice.
  • Few cities anywhere in Europe can match the cultural richness of Berlin.

[talking about a period of history]

  • At that time few people traveled who didn’t have to.

Source: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/quantifiers/little-a-little-few-a-few

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    Time is uncountable but "I always have a little time for a cup of tea at this hour of the day." A "How much money do you have?" B "A little" – Mari-Lou A Nov 23 '16 at 15:55
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    I already checked the Cambridge dictionary. In the sentence she drank some tea and ate a little bread, bread is a mass noun and in the sentence she saves a little money every month, money is an uncountable noun. These sentences are from the same source. Check it once. – Omkar Reddy Nov 23 '16 at 16:00

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