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A friend of mine recently had a test during one of her English classes and there was a task to choose the correct word that best fits the sentence: "Few of the students knew ___ of the answers". And the options were: no, none, any, some.

I, personally, never learned grammar in a formal way, so I always do such tasks intuitively. In my opinion, both options none and some fit the sentence, but they both make the meaning of the sentence different. My friend also thought in the same way and chose the option "none", because, as she said, "it felt more optimistic".

However, it turned out to be wrong, and she asked her teacher about it, and she replied that the correct option was any. She said, quote,

'few' is negative, and you cannot use double negation in a sentence.

So the correct way to say that turned out to be "Few of the students knew any of the answers." But neither I, nor my friend do not understand the meaning of this sentence. Does it mean something like "a little amount of students knew at least anything"? Plus, I do understand that double negation is a big no in English, but I just cannot comprehend how can "few" be negative and what this "correct" sentence really means.

I understand that this question is not really quite specific, but I would be really grateful is somebody could explain me why my options were wrong and what does the correct sentence really mean. Thanks a lot in advance!

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    "Few of the students knew none of the answers" is perfectly OK. It implies the students were knowledgeable. Dec 5 '21 at 13:30
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    "'few' is negative, and you cannot use double negation in a sentence." That's not true. Double negation is not forbidden, as long as you don't misunderstand its meaning.
    – Stef
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:16
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    Double negation is not uncommon (pun intended). And I can't think of any language that doesn't allow it (again, pun intended) Dec 6 '21 at 22:08
  • Likewise, "Few of the students knew some of the answers" is also perfectly OK. It implies that students don't know many of the answers. The key is to take out the "of the students" and see if it sounds okay. For example, "Few knew some of the answers" and "Few knew none of the answers" are both valid, as is "Few knew any of the answers".
    – Blairg23
    Dec 7 '21 at 0:13
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    @Blairg23 I find "some" the hardest to understand by far, and I think it's incorrect. It just doesn't make sense, and I bet natives will almost always choose "any" instead of "some". Dec 7 '21 at 0:58
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I agree that any is the best option here. (You should always remember when taking a multiple-choice test that there may be more than one valid answer, or even no really good answer; you should choose the best or least-worst option.)

As you correctly imply, no is completely wrong and can be dismissed as a choice.

Few of the students knew none of the answers means that there were some students—but not many—who knew no answer at all. This is a grammatically valid sentence. But your friend's teacher is correct that it sounds a little awkward to phrase it this way; a native speaker would not use that wording casually. It would be used to emphasize the fact that only a few students knew nothing—most did know something!
A more natural way to express the same idea would be to invert the sentence and make it positive: Most of the students knew at least one answer.

Few of the students knew some of the answers is likewise unnatural. In this case the sentence is still grammatically valid but the usage is not really correct. "Some" can't be used with "few" like this because they are both vague terms. I can't come up with a solid meaning for this sentence.
Note that A few of the students knew some of the answers is much more understandable—you can do your own research on the difference between "few" and "a few," "little" and "a little," etc.

Finally, Few of the students knew any of the answers is the most natural phrasing of the four options. It has the opposite meaning to few knew none: Only one or two students knew even one answer, while most knew nothing.

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    You could make "none" sound more natural with some context: "I had been told that the students would be completely unfamiliar with this topic, but few students knew none of the answers." Dec 6 '21 at 20:09
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The word "few" is weird. The phrase "a few" means there definitely were some, but "few" by itself implicitly means "Not more than a few". In some cases, putting "a" before "few" can make its meaning opposite. If there are 100 students, and 90 of them knew some of the answers, then it is in some sense technically true that 3 of them knew some of the answers (3 is a subset of 90), and 3 is a few, but that doesn't mean that it's correct to say "Few of the students knew some of the answers"; that sentence means only a few students knew some of the answers. So while "few" is not explicitly a negative word, it implicitly is one when used alone.

Your teacher is correct in that "some" is at least unidiomatic (I'm not sure I would go as far as to say ungrammatical), but her reasoning is somewhat backwards, as she said that we should avoid a double negative, but in fact we do need double negative concord. While "any" has a positive meaning, it has a negative polarity, which we need to match the negative polarity of "few". It be correct to say "A few of the students knew some of the answers", but "No more than a few of the students knew some of the answers" is unidiomatic.

Similarly, if 10.5% of the students knew some of the answers, we could say "More than 10% of the students knew some of the answers", or "Fewer than 11% of the students knew any of the answers", but not "Fewer than 11% of the students knew some of the answers"; "fewer" has negative polarity and so takes the negative polarity "any".

[If you're not confused enough already, "any" has negative polarity only in some circumstances. In the sentence "Any of these would work", it has positive polarity.]

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  • I think "some" is wrong, it abides by grammatical rules of English, but it creates a sentence that has no meaning, and is very very hard for natives to wrap their heads around. No one would use it. Dec 7 '21 at 1:09
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When natives read the prompt:

few of the students knew ______ of the answers

the first word that they will naturally think of filling the gap with will be "any", even without seeing the options provided in the question you had to answer. (Perhaps "many" and "all" are other contenders, but I did some quick ngrams checks to confirm "any" is indeed the most common).

"Few of the students knew any of the answers" is very idiomatic, and by far the most common type of sentence you will see made from your options. It means that only a very small number (few) of the students got at least one answer correct, and in fact almost all of the students didn't know any answers at all.

"Few of the students knew none of the answers" is also a correct sentence, and sounds totally natural to me although it's definitely less common and less expected than the sentence using "any" would be. "Few of the students knew none of the answers" means that only a very small number of students ("few of the students") didn't know any of the answers, i.e. almost all of the students knew at least one answer.

Your teacher's statement that "you cannot use double negation in a sentence" is just wrong, and I'm not sure what she may have meant by it. Double negation is very common in English, I like polfosol's autologically humorous comment pointing that out: "double negation is not uncommon."

"Few of the students knew some of the answers" is so unnatural that I would say it is not correct. It is extremely hard to understand what this sentence means. Eventually, after many attempts at rephrasing it in our heads, we can figure out that it probably means the same as "few of the students knew any of the answers", an idiomatic phrase that natives will always choose to say instead of with "some". Even though the phrase with "some" is grammatical, it is very far removed from a native's understanding and usage of English, and since I subscribe to linguistic descriptivism I would say it shouldn't be counted as correct.

In the end, "any" and "none" definitely fit in the sentence on your friend's test, but because "any" would be far more likely to be seen—and is thus a "more" correct answer—it's not too unfair that your friend did not get credit for "none", especially since you two didn't even consider "any" to be a valid answer. Looks like we've all been able to learn a little more about English because of this!

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    This. I think the question would have a different answer in say, an ESL course than an upper/advanced high-school class (for native speakers). The correct idiomatic answer is 'any', but the most plausible (likely to occur) answer is 'none'. If a class test resulted in few students getting any answers correct, the teacher would have questions to answer.
    – mcalex
    Dec 7 '21 at 8:18
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Response to your wondering

what does the correct sentence really mean

The sentence with the blank to fill in is ambiguous. Several of the possible answers lead to grammatically correct possible meanings.

Comments and answers here show that the teacher was wrong to assert that "any" was the only correct answer. Ambiguity like this cannot be settled by invoking rules of grammar.

Whether you or your friend want to point the teacher to this discussion is up to you.

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The teacher is incorrect.

Few of the students knew none of the answers. means almost all of the students knew at least some of the answers. A pretty smart bunch.

Few of the students knew any of the answers. means most of the students knew none of the answers. Rather poor performance and perhaps the teaching methods should be reevaluated.

Few of the students knew some of the answers. means most of the students knew only a few of the answers. The test was obviously inappropriately difficult.

None of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, but each conveys a different meaning. None of them are incorrect in any way, given the appropriate context.

By the way, few is not a negative. It's a quantifier. Its use does not lead to a double negative. There are few actual negatives in the English language.

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