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Do "only a few" and "(very) few" have more or less the same meaning?

a. John has only a few coins.

b. John has (very) few coins.

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  • No, they don't have quite the same meaning. "A few" has a paucal meaning indicating an imprecise small quantity or number. – BillJ Mar 31 at 12:23
  • "A few" means "some," while "only a few" means "very few" or "hardly any," according to L . G. Alexander in his Longman English Grammar. – Apollyon Apr 1 at 1:58
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Q. Do "only a few" and "(very) few" have more or less the same meaning?

a. John has only a few coins. - vs - b. John has (very) few coins.


A. The short answer Yes, they "have more or less the same meaning".

However meaning is not everything. The second sentence emphasises what a small amount of coins John has whilst the first does not.


Very is used as a emphasis "The situation is very serious"

"John has very few coins" Here "very" is used to emphasis the "adjective few" which means not many.


Few is a quantifier used with plural countable nouns and in this case a few means "some"

Without the article “a,” few emphasizes a small number of something. Adding the article removes the emphasis—a few means some. The same rule applies to little, which is used with singular uncountable nouns. Ref Grammarly

"John has only a few coins" is the same as saying John has a small unknown amount of coins.


Alee ref CED Very Few Only

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  • What is interesting is how "very few" and "only a few" behave in ordinary tag questions. I suppose "John has very few coins, does he?" is natural as an ordinary tag question. What about "John has only a few coins, does he"? – Apollyon Mar 31 at 3:10
  • @Apollyon; you cannot phrase either sentence that way. "John has only a few coins" is a statement so you cannot question it. How many coins does John have? would be a question." I think John has very few coins" would be suggestive. Trying to use your first example I would use "John doesn't have many coins, does he?" or your second example as "Does John only have a few coins"? We cannot really emphasis an amount in this case. – Brad Mar 31 at 3:53
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Most people who heard either would take both statements to mean the same thing. That said:

a. John has only a few coins

This is more or less speaking in absolute terms. "A few" of something is generally considered to be more than two (a couple) and less than several. In any case it's a fixed quantity, even if imprecise.

b. John has (very) few coins.

This construction is potentially subjective. If I have 10 million coins, and my friend has 5 million coins, I could say that our friend who has only 1 thousand coins might have few coins (when compared to our horde).

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These two sentences essentially mean the same thing. However the "only" implies that the quantity of coins that John has is exceptionally small in number.

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