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I took a test with the following question:

__________has changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

a. Little
b. Some
c. Few.

Now, I know that the correct answer is little, but why specifically can't I use few here? What is the rule for this?

Also, it seems to me that we could make a sentence like

Few have survived fighting polar bears barehanded.

So, could someone kindly explain why we can't use few in the example?

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    Your example is fine. What's the difference between it and the test question? – Apollys Mar 18 at 22:28
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We use "little" for uncountable nouns and "few" for countable nouns.
In your sentence

Little has changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

The general situation has changed a bit. And "general situation" is an uncountable noun, therefore "little" is correct.

In your second sentence

Few have survived fighting polar bears barehanded.

"Few have survived" implies few people have survived, and you can count people.

  • Little people would probably not survive fighting a polar bear although they might get a headbut in at some soft spot. – Borgh Mar 19 at 11:23
  • But it changes the meaning – Kshitij Singh Mar 19 at 11:37
  • Exactly the point. – Borgh Mar 19 at 14:22
7

This sentence would work:

Few have changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

The difference is that few requires a plural verb form. Few has is ungrammatical, but few have is fine.


Note the subtle difference in meaning based on the words that could be implied to exist but that have been left out:

Little [of anything] has changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

Versus:

Few [people / things] have changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

The subject goes from something general to something more specific.


However, the multiple choice question didn't use have as its second word; it used has. With has, few isn't an option.

  • "Few [people / things] have changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.|" This sounds grammatically incorrect to me for some reason. – BrainDefenestration Mar 18 at 8:04
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    @JasonBassford: I don't think you can omit the "things" in "Few things have changed" without changing the meaning. Without it, it strongly implies you're talking about people. – Flater Mar 18 at 9:29
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    @Flater. With suitable context it could be fine (e.g. "How are the trains?" "Few have run on time this week"). Without context I agree it implies people. – Mark Perryman Mar 18 at 11:58
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    @Flater I don't think it strongly implies anything. WIthout any context, "Few have changed at work" is almost meaningless IMO. My reaction would be to wonder "Few what have changed?" – alephzero Mar 18 at 12:29
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    Last year one of the things to come out of our staff survey was provision for lockers for cyclists so they can change once they get to work. So the statement 'Few have changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out." not only is perfectly meaningful, it might even be true at my office. – Pete Kirkham Mar 18 at 13:11
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____ has changed at work since the last employee survey was carried out.

Both "few" and "little" occur as fused determiner-heads, but the former only occurs with personal plural nouns, as in Few would disagree with the decision, where we understand "few people".

By contrast, paucal "little" occurs with non-personal nouns, as in your example.

Edit: For those not familiar with the term 'fusion', as used to describe "few" and "little", it means that a determiner and the noun it determines (the 'head') are combined, or fused, into a single word. For example, "few" is a determinative combining the functions of determiner and head, hence the term 'fused determiner-head'.

  • so your saying that whenever we read the word few, we subconsciously understand "few people"? – WendyG Mar 19 at 10:29
  • @WendyG Yes, we understand "few" to mean "few people". Note that a determiner cannot function alone as a subject; by definition it requires a noun to determine. – BillJ Mar 19 at 10:37
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Groups of people have often been described as "The Few" or "The Many":

Casting these as definite nouns, is used to emphasise their commonality as a group (the few as a group, or the many as a group). As such, they are also in principle a countable number, although in practice that often isn't done or expected.

But in your situation, you want a comparative ("not a lot") and not a countable specific small number. For that, little is the correct word.

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