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Little, a little, few, a few

from English Grammar Today

(A) little and (a) few are quantifiers meaning ‘some’. Little and few have negative meanings. We use them to mean ‘not as much as may be expected or wished for’.

Compare

All she wanted was a few moments on her own.

some, a small number

She had few moments on her own.

not many/almost none

She saves a little money every month.

some, a small amount

They had little money to spend.

not much/almost nothing

A:

Have you got any money?

B:

Yes, a little.

some, a small amount

A:

Have you got any money?

B:

No, very little.

not much/almost nothing

A little, a few with a noun

We use a little with singular uncountable nouns. We use a few with plural countable nouns:

Mary said nothing, but she drank some tea and ate a little bread.

We stayed a few days in Florence and visited the museums.

Little, few with a noun

We use little with uncountable nouns. We use few with plural countable nouns. They are used in formal contexts:

I’m not very happy about it but I suppose I have little choice.

Few cities anywhere in Europe can match the cultural richness of Berlin.

[talking about a period of history]

At that time few people travelled who didn’t have to.

(A) little, (a) few without a noun

We can use (a) little and (a) few as pronouns. We can use them to substitute for a noun when it is obvious from the context:

After that, she began to tell them a little about her life in Scotland, particularly her life with the Rosenblooms.

Don’t take all the strawberries. Just have a few. (Just have a few strawberries.)

Little and few are not very common without a noun. We use them in formal contexts:

Little is known about his upbringing and education.

Few would be in favour of police officers carrying weapons.

(A) little of, (a) few of

We use of with (a) little and (a) few when they come before articles (a/an, the), demonstratives (this, that), possessives (my, your) or pronouns (him, them):

Put the flour into a bowl, blend with a little of the milk, beat in the egg yolks, then the sugar and the rest of the milk.

A few of his films were seen abroad.

A little: adverb

We use a little as an adverb of degree. It is more formal than a bit:

He smiled just a little.

Her hands were shaking a little.

A little with adjectives, determiners, adverbs

We use a little before adjectives and adverbs to modify them. It is more formal than a bit:

She seemed to be getting a little better.

What you need is a little more romance.

We often use a little with bit:

I find that a little bit hard to believe.

Little: adjective

We use little as an adjective to mean ‘small’:

‘You’re going to have a little baby brother, Martha,’ her mother told her one day.

I know a little restaurant not far from here.

Little or small?

Little and small have similar meanings. We use small to refer only to size. We use little to refer to size, but also to express a positive emotion (especially with words like beautiful, lovely, wonderful):

He’s a small baby. (He’s smaller than average.)

He’s a lovely little baby. (He’s lovely and small.)

There’s a wonderful little café a the end of the street. (preferred to: There’s a wonderful small café at the end of the street.)

(“Little, a little, few, a few” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
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