Any differences between “I didn't have many apples” and “I had few apples”?

We all know that "I had a few apples" and "I had few apples" are different.

I wondered what the possible differences would be in the meaning of these two sentences:

I didn't have many apples.

Well, we know that "few" is a negative quantifier and it's the opposite of 'many'. But do the two sentences convey precisely the same meaning?

Yes, they convey different meanings.

Down-to-Earth

1. I didn't have many apples.

Simply put, sentence one conveys the meaning that the speaker didn't have as many apples as it would take to call the apples "many". Sentence two tells us that the speaker had a small number of apples.

They could mean the same, but they do not. "I didn't have many" means "I had less than what could be called many". That has a broad meaning: I could be having a relatively large amount of apples, but not as many that would fit the label "many". However, "I had few" means "I only had a small number". It couldn't imply the meaning "I didn't have many" represents. In other words, sentence two implies sentence 1, but sentence 1 has a more general meaning. Take a look at the diagram I draw to get a better picture. A more elaborate description is given below.

Technically . . .

More info on this can be found on Cambridge Grammar of English Language §5.2 — scalar entailments and implicatures; page 366–368.

CGEL points out that negating "many" results in a paucal implicature. It's useful to compare this pair to the more restrictive negative quantifier "no". Indeed, "few" is the opposite of many; but "not many" is not as restrictive as them. Compare these four instances:

1. None of the sailors tried to defend their captain.
2. Few of the sailors tried to defend their captain.
3. Not many of the sailors tried to defend their captain.
4. Not all of the sailors tried to defend their captain.

We can apply what's been said here. "None" is the most restrictive,; "few" is less restrictive than "none" but still more than the other pairs, "not many" is only more restrictive than "not all".

Hence, we can say that if sentence one is true, so are others. If sentence two is true, then so are 3 and 4, but we can't judge whether one is correct or not; and the same story goes for three and four. If we know that not all of the sailors helped their captain, we can't necessarily judge whether none of them helped the captain, or there were only a few exceptional sailors that didn't help the captain.

However, it should be noted that this difference in meaning is very subtle and may go unnoticed, since this was all about implicatures: context-dependent. We can conclude that the sentences do not convey 'precisely' the same meaning, although the difference is passable in most cases.

• Well my answer wasn't far then. – Alejandro Dec 14 '15 at 17:24
• Yes @Sub, and I upvoted it. However, I felt the need to share what I learned and hence I posted a self-answer. – M.A.R. Dec 14 '15 at 17:25
• I love the graph. Moreover, you hit on a key point: terms like "many" can vary according to the situation. If my son brought home three bushels of apples from the supermarket, for example, that's many apples. (At least, it would be in my house!) However, if I owned an orchard, and my son only managed to harvest three bushels of apples, that same quantity would now be very few. – J.R. Dec 14 '15 at 21:09

They convey the meaning of quantity but in a different way.

By using didn't have many we specify that we had a certain amount of apples, not much as expected, but we did have apples to accomplish our goal.

If we use I had few apples, it means we didn't even have a certain quantity, just a short quantity that didn't allow us to make what we wanted. Compare:

I didn't have many apples but I managed to do a cake.
I had few apples, so I couldn't make the cake.

• This is closer to the correct answer than the other answers. – M.A.R. Dec 14 '15 at 17:04
• I disagree. In the two example sentences, the phrases can be interchanged without changing the meaning. "I had few apples, but I managed to make a cake." "I didn't have many apples, so I couldn't make the cake." – Era Dec 14 '15 at 17:11
• @Era I think you can interchange them if you use I had a few apples, pretty different from I had few apples. – Alejandro Dec 14 '15 at 17:15
• @Subjunctive I don't know what you mean. What's wrong with the sentence I had few apples, but I managed to make a cake? I don't think it would be at all correct to say I had a few apples, but I managed to make a cake. It doesn't make any sense because you are using two positive statements and connecting them with but. – Era Dec 14 '15 at 17:21
• I agree with @Era here. The only way we can say for sure that few means "not enough" is to say "too few": We had too few apples, so we couldn't make the cake. – J.R. Dec 14 '15 at 21:06

In my opinion,

"few" means "I don't have any apple."; another explanation is "I almost don't have any apples."

and

"many" means "I have several apples."

Since I'm not a native speaker, I strongly advise you to get the answer from your teacher. The definitions of "few, a few, little, a little" will be a nuisance in future.