Few and little

This topic is a little bit more about grammar than pronunciation, but it is important because so many students are confused by it. There is one very small difference in grammar, which can make a big difference in meaning. It’s the word “a” when using the words “few” and “little”.

“Few” is not the same as “a few”, and “little” is not the same as “a little”. Here is what they do mean:

“a few”
This means: some, but not too many; a small amount of something.
For example: I just need a few more minutes to finish.

This means: almost none; there are scarcely any to be found.
For example: Few people have ever seen the Amur leopard.

“a little”
This means: some, but not too much; a small amount.
For example: Could I please have a little water?

This means: almost nothing, there is hardly any at all.
For example: They had little time to escape the burning house.

To help make the distinction even more clear, let’s compare two similar sentences. The following sentences are almost the same — the only difference is the word “a” — but the meanings are basically the opposite.

There are a few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is a good place to visit. Perhaps there is unusually beautiful scenery, or some very interesting wildlife — so there are some good reasons to visit it.

There are few good reasons to visit that mountain.

This means that the mountain is not a place very many people would want to visit. Perhaps it is dangerous, or unusually difficult — so there are not many reasons to visit it.

Noticing the presence or absence of the word “a” can be difficult, because it is usually very small and hard to hear. Small words, such as “a” and “the” or prepositions, are normally weak in sentences because of sentence stress. Even though they can be hard to hear, they are still very important, and native speakers do notice when they are used or not used, so this is definitely something to watch out, or rather, listen for.

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