What are the differences among “little”, “few”, “a little” and “a few”?
Are “little” and “few” synonyms?
'Few' is mainly used when talking about the number of 'count nouns', such as 'dogs'. You can say
Few dogs make good friends with cats!
to mean that not many dogs make good friends with cats. But if you said
Little dogs make good friends with cats!
this would suggest that dogs that are small (cat-sized, perhaps?) make good friends with cats.
On the other hand, 'little' is used when talking about the amount of 'mass nouns', such as 'water'.
There was a flood, but little water actually got into the house.
means that not a lot of water got into the house (thank goodness!). On the other hand,
There was a flood, but few water actually got into the house.
is not a valid sentence.
Sometimes you can use either to produce equivalent sentences, but usually 'few' will precede a plural noun and 'little' will proceed a singular (mass) noun. For example:
John had little reason to dislike Jim.
Jim had few reasons to dislike John.
Both of these sentences mean that they haven't given the other much cause to dislike them.
A little and a few both mean some, but the above rules still apply here. So you would say a few dogs and a little water, but not a little dogs or a few water (which aren't valid sentences).
Few is used with countable nouns (nouns which can be counted), such as coin(s), sweet(s), and animal(s).
Little is used with uncountable nouns (nouns that cannot be counted), such as milk, time, and money.
FEW vs. A FEW
Few emphasises the lack of something.
There are few sweets left in the jar. (We should be careful not to eat them too quickly because they are almost gone.)
A few emphasises that something still remains.
We have a few minutes left in class. Do you have any questions? (We still have time so we should use it.)
LITTLE vs. A LITTLE
Little emphasises the lack of something.
We have little money right now. We should got out for dinner another time. (We should be careful and use the money wisely because there is not much).
A little emphasises that something still remains.
There's a little ice cream left; who will eat it? (There's not enough ice cream to save it or put it back in the freezer so it should be eaten.)
Many of the answers are good and rafil99's answer comes closest to what I think needs to be said. I'll borrow his model and flesh it out more.
Here's the short version:
"All the contestants have a chance to win, but few of them ever do."
"I have a few books to give you. When can you pick them up?"
"I understood little of what you said."
"A little patience goes a long way!"
Here's a small chart showing how to use them:
I'll examine them in detail below, starting with "few" and "a few". Luckily, most of the same notes apply to "little" and "a little".
N.B. I simplified the citations of the examples below. Most are from the Oxford English Dictionary.
"Few" is probably the easiest of all four — none of its definitions is much different from the first entry in the OED:
1. Not many; amounting to a small number.
→ A man of few words.
It is also possible to use "few" with this partitive genitive of and then a noun (plural or collective):
→ Few of the members of the late cabinet had any reason to expect his favour.
You can also separate it from a noun:
→ The enemy ... entering the town by few at a time.
(That is, few of the enemy.)
You can also modify it with an adverb:
→ Among the numbers of bodies that I examined ... very few ... had gall-stones.
You can also use it in the comparative and the superlative:
→ No fewer than twenty-eight views.
The OED has several definitions of "a few". Here's the most relevant one:
2. Like the cardinal numerals, few may be used to form [...] a virtual collective noun
a. a few: a small number of.
→ I pray you let me now and then have a few lines from you.
I think most English speakers would agree with Wiktionary that if you have at least two or three things, then you have "a few" things.
The OED adds a very helpful note:
Without prefixed word, few usually implies antithesis with ‘many’, while in a few [...] the antithesis is with ‘none at all’.
This means that we usually say "few people" to mean "Not many people", but we usually say "a few people" to mean "At least some people!"
You can also use "a few" on its own. Here it means "a few people":
→ A level which had ... been reached only by a few.
But you can't say "a fewer" or "a fewest" — at least not in modern English.
Luckily, "little" is very similar to "few".
We can make a helpful observation: The difference between "few" and "little" is the same as the difference between "many" and "much".
That means that we can use "few" before a plural or collective noun, but "little" before a singular or mass noun.
Here's the most relevant OED definition:
little, adj., pron., and n., and adv.
II. Chiefly attrib. (as determiner) with mass or collective nouns.
11. With negative emphasis: not much; only a slight amount or degree of; hardly any.
→ He had little money, little patronage — no military establishment.
Like "few", we can also use "little" apart from a noun:
I've read a lot of science fiction, and enjoyed little.
(That is, "I haven't enjoyed much of what I've read.")
You can also modify it with an adverb:
→ Bouncing angrily over with too little regard to his condition.
But you can't say the comparative "littler" or the superlative "littlest", not in this meaning.
One more note on "little" is that it's quite literary. Usually we say "not much". If we do use "little", we usually add "very" to make "very little".
Once again, we're in luck: "a little" changes "little" exactly the same way that "a few" changes "few".
Here's the relevant definition from the OED:
little, adj., pron., and n., and adv.
12. With more positive emphasis: a small quantity of; some, though not much.
b. a little.
→ Mitzi had saved a little money from the time when she had been a successful athlete.
Note that phrase "positive emphasis". That is, "a little" is just like "a few": it implies, "At least some!"
Most of the other notes I could make are the same ones I made for "a few".
"Small" is certainly another meaning of "little". Keep in mind that this is an adjective, not a quantifier or pronoun.
Hopefully it's not too hard to keep these meanings separate.
However, it does mean that some sentences that look very similar have very different meanings. For example, jfhc gives this example:
Little dogs make good friends with cats.
This means that small dogs make good friends with cats.
On the other hand:
Little literary criticism is worth reading.
This means that not much literary criticism is worth reading.
To add to rafil99's statements:
"FEW vs. A FEW
"Few" emphasises the lack of something...
"A few" emphasises that something still remains."
This distinction leads to fully opposite meanings to the phrases formed by preceding each of the above with "quite".
"There are quite a few apples in the bin" or "There are quite a few reasons for this" will mean that there are a lot of, or many, apples or reasons.
The constructions with "quite few" are more limited because of idiom; the above sentences would be slightly odd with "quite few". At any rate:
"The apples we have are quite few in number" or "The reasons for this are quite few" will mean that there are only a small number of apples or reasons.
You could also substitute "very few" for "quite few"; but "very a few" is not a proper phrase. To say "a very few" would mean the same as "very few", although the "a" isn't usually called for. Also, "very few" would work perfectly well where I said "quite few" would be slightly odd.
"There are very few apples in the bin" or "There are very few reasons for this" will mean that there are only a small number of apples or reasons.
The main point is that while "few" basically, and in general, refers to a small quantity, "quite a few" refers to a large quantity.
Basically these are two questions:
a little, and same way, difference between
few: Both are Quantifiable Adjectives, or Adjectives of number. The difference is that
little qualifies something that isn't countable, and
few qualifies countable things.
I've little money to spend.
There is little milk in the jug.
I've few cents to spend.
There are few liters of milk in the jug.
So anything you can add numbers to will be qualified with
few, and if not, it will be qualified with
many. You can never say
1 milk or 2 milk, so you would use
little here, but you can say
1 packet of milk or 2 packets of milk, so you would use
few here as:
I was left with only a few packets of milk.
few is same as
a few but it gives you a negative sense; when you are left with negligible amount of things. For example,
She is desperate; she has few friends, and most of the time, she lives alone.
a few conveys that the amount is enough, and the sense is positive.
I've a few hundred dollars in my pockets, and that would be enough for the rest of trip.
So whenever you have sufficient amount, and/or you want to convey a positive message, you should use
a few/little, and for negligible amount or too-short-to-do type of things, you should just use
few and a few should only be used to modify a countble noun, whereas little and a little should be used to modify an uncountable noun.
Few and Little have a mainly negative meaning, emphasizing the lack or shortage of something, while A few and A little have a positive meaning, emphasizing the existence or even abundance of something.
Few dogs make friends with cats.
= Hardly any dogs make friends with cats.
A few dogs make friends with cats.
= Some dogs make friends with cats.
So in short
| U Noun | C Noun ---------+----------+--------- Positive | a little | a few Negative | little | few
"Few" and " a few" are similar in meaning, but with opposite connotations.
"Few" means "not many," and the implication is "not enough."
"A few" has the connotations of "quite a few," and in any event, "enough."
Ditto for "little" versus "a little."