Ask the Editor
Serenity Carr, Assistant Editor
Should I Say Few or A Few?
Friday October 23rd 2020
In the sentence "Unfortunately, there were ___ accidents," which is correct to fill in the blank, "few" or "a few"? — Clau, Argentina

The correct sentence is "Unfortunately, there were a few accidents."


Both "few" and "a few" mean "a small number" but they are used in different ways.

"Few" means "not many" and sometimes implies that there are not as many as you might want or expect.

"A few" means "some" and sometimes implies that there are more than you might want or expect.


In the sentence "Unfortunately, there were a few accidents" we know that "a few" is correct because we do not want accidents and because of the word "unfortunately" If we replace "a few" with "some" it may be clearer:

  • "Unfortunately, there were some accidents." [=there were some, and that is more than we wanted=we wanted no accidents and it is bad that there were some.]


If the sentence began with "Fortunately" then "few" would be the correct answer: "Fortunately, there were few accidents." If we replace "few" with "not many" it may be clearer:

  • "Fortunately, there were not many accidents." [=there were not many, and that is less than we expected=we expected some accidents and it is good that there were not many.]


Here are more examples of "few" and "a few" in sentences:

  • A few students showed up early to class. [=some students showed up early]
  • Few students showed up on time to class. [=not many students showed up on time]
  • I left you a few [=some] books to look through.
  • There were few [=not many] books left to choose from.
  • I ate a few [=some] cookies with lunch.
  • I eat few cookies. [=I rarely eat cookies]
  • It was great to see a few [=some] friends at the concert.
  • There were few [=not many] people I knew at the party.


I hope this helps.



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