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Can you help me with this question pleas?

The concert wasn't popular. Only ____ people came.

How should I complete the sentence, with a few or few?

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    Bard agrees with me that only is a "Negative polarity item". It goes on to say Without the indefinite article "a," the NPI "few" would be ungrammatical. This is because the NPI "few" needs to be associated with a particular example of the quantifier "few." In which context, a few is syntactically the same as a specific number, such as Only 100 people voted. I'm not sure why the article in [a] few people voted is completely optional, but it can't be prepended to many or some people. Dec 9, 2023 at 11:22
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    "Only few people came" is not grammatical. You could delete the "Only" and say "Few people came", but that's not what the quoted question is asking.
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 9, 2023 at 17:10
  • @FumbleFingers That is surely over the OP's pay grade.
    – Lambie
    Feb 8 at 23:07

2 Answers 2

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In this context, few by itself would convey the sense of only. So Only few people came sounds a bit odd. The most natural, at least in contemporary American English, would be Only a few people came.

By the way, the only serves to make the sentence sound as though the sentence is contradicting a prior expectation, in other words that one might imagine that more people would come. Conversely, A few people came tends to sound as though it is countering a prior assumption that no one at all would come.

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This isn't a stylistic choice. In the cited context, few must unquestionably be preceded by the indefinite article...

1: The concert wasn't popular. Only a few people came.

It's the word only that forces the need to include the article (article-less Only few people came is syntactically invalid). Here's a similar context (without only) where the article is "optional"...

2: They tried. Few succeeded.
3: They tried. A few succeeded.

The implications are quite different. #2 focuses on the probability of failure (negative), where #3 emphasizes the possibility of success (positive).


The reason for this difference is that linguistically speaking, few is a "negative polarity item" (works in "hardly any, not enough" contexts), but a few and many are neutral or positive. See the example on Page 1668 in this University of Chicago paper...

4: Few professors invited any students (FINE)
4a: *Many professors invited any students (INVALID)
4b: *A few professors invited any students (INVALID)

I added my A few after their Many because 4a and 4b both fail for the same reason (unacceptable juxtaposition of positive and negative polarity items).

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