Q: “John has few friends” implies that John is pretty lonely, while “Frank has a few friends” implies that Frank knows some people he can go to a movie with. How does that “a” change the meaning from meager to adequate?
A: This is a subject that demands more than a few words.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes “few” as an approximate negator, a word (like “little,” “barely,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” “rarely,” and “seldom”) that is loosely negative.
An absolute negator (like “no,” “nobody,” “nothing,” “neither,” “no,” and “never”) represents zero, the Cambridge Grammar says.
But an approximate negator, write the authors, Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, “merely approximates to zero—it is located toward the bottom of the scale, in the area that contains zero.”
“However, the fact that the approximate negators do not indicate absolute zero gives them a somewhat equivocal status with respect to the positive vs negative contrast,” the authors add.
The Cambridge Grammar treats “few” and “a few” as two separate determiners (words that determine or modify nouns). Although it sees “few” as loosely negative, it describes “a few” as “unequivocally positive.”
Pullum and Huddleston use the sentences “A few have resigned” and “Few have resigned” to compare the two usages.
“A few have resigned,” Cambridge says, implies that “Many have resigned is false,” but necessitates that “None have resigned is false.” In other words, “a few” could in certain cases refer to “many,” but never to “none.”
As the authors explain, the statement with “a few” would be correct if many had resigned but the number of resignations wasn’t known when the statement was made.
“Now with few we have precisely the reverse situation,” Cambridge says.
“Few have resigned,” the authors explain, necessitates that “Many have resigned is false,” but merely implies that “None have resigned is false.” In other words, “few” could never refer to “many,” but it might refer to “none” under certain conditions.
For example, the authors say “few” might imply “none” in this sentence: “Few of you will have experienced that kind of intimidation which our colleague Kim Jones has had to endure over the last several months.”
“Here it could well be that none of you have in fact experienced it: in this case I say few rather than none not because the latter would be false but because I do not have the knowledge to justify the stronger claim that it makes,” they write.
Cambridge notes that the “many” and “none” senses of “few” can be strengthened or weakened by adding a qualifying phrase, as in “A few of them, indeed quite a lot, had found the proposal offensive” and “Few of them, if any, will find the proposal offensive.”
We might add here that something similar happens when we add “a” to “little,” another approximate negator. “Doctors gave them little hope” is negative, while “Doctors gave them a little hope” is positive.
Why does the addition of the indefinite article “a” to the approximate negator “few” create a positive determiner?
Stephanie Solt, an American linguist doing research at the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft in Berlin, says that “the standard if unspoken assumption” by some linguists “would seem to be that a few is an idiom, that is, a fixed, unanalyzable unit.”
But on closer examination, Solt says in a 2006 paper presented at a conference on semantics, “it is clear that a few does not always function as a unit: a and few may be separated”—by an adverb (as “a very few students”) or by an adjective modifying the head noun (“a lucky few students”).
She says “a few is composed of an independent a and few which combine in the syntax.” Semantically, she argues, both “few students” and “a few students” are negative, “differing only in the scope of negation.”
However, we believe Pullum and Huddleston are right that “few” is somewhat negative and “a few” clearly positive. And we think “a few” is indeed a separate determiner. The indefinite article here turns a rather ambivalent negative term into a definitely positive one.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the article “a” in such a construction expresses “an approximate estimate” and has the meaning “some, a matter of, about.” This use of “a,” the dictionary says, is now chiefly seen in phrases like “a few, a good few, a good many, a great many.”
The OED further describes an expression composed of “a” + “few” + a plural noun as “a virtual collective noun … construed with plural verb.”
The positive use of “a few” is quite old, dating from at least the Middle English period (about 1100-1500) and perhaps as far back as Old English.
The earliest definite example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Þe kyng with a fewe men hymself flew at þe laste.”
However, the OED has a bracketed—that is, questionable—Old English citation from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus:
“Ic bydde þe for þynre myltse þæt ðu læte me sprecan ane feawa worda” (“I bid thee that in thy mercy thou let me speak a few words”).
Not surprisingly, the dictionary has several Old English examples for “few” without the indefinite article, including this one from Beowulf, which may date from the early 700s:
“He feara sum beforan gengde” (“He went in front with few men”).