I was marking some IELTS essays this morning when I came across a mistake that one of my students had made. She wrote,

While many feel men and women have equal capabilities at work, there are few who seem to disagree.

I changed “few” to “some” to make the following sentence:

While many feel men and women have equal capabilities at work, there are some who seem to disagree.

In this article, I’m going to explain the difference between “few” and “some” and also the more subtle difference between “few” and “a few.”

*

But first, I want to let you know that I have changed the format of my writing correction service slightly. It is essentially the same except that the second page of my feedback is more detailed. I used to give one page of notes but now those notes are structured to provide feedback related to the four sections of the IELTS marking rubric: Task Response / Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, and Grammatical Range and Accuracy.

You can see the difference here:

old and new writing correction service 1024x768 - Few vs A Few vs Some

A Few vs Some

First of all, let’s look at the difference between “a few” and “some.” Essentially, “a few” and “some” have the same meaning. Let’s look at two sentence:

I have to give a few presentations next week.

I have to give some presentations next week.

These mean the same thing.

But are they exactly the same?

few vs a few vs some 931x1024 - Few vs A Few vs Some

When we say “a few,” it places emphasis on the fact that there are not many. When we say “some,” it is the same but there is no emphasis. Therefore, in the first sentence above, the listener would imagine that there are not many presentations. In the second, there may be slightly more.

There is also a grammatical difference in how we use these words. Look at the following sentences:

CORRECT: We’ll pack a few sandwiches for the picnic.

CORRECT: We’ll pack some sandwiches for the picnic.

INCORRECT: We’ll pack a few bread for the picnic.

CORRECT: We’ll pack some bread for the picnic.

As you can see, we do not use “a few” for uncountable nouns. These include: cheese, information, garbage, advice, water, equipment, salt.

A Few vs Few

Maybe you already knew the difference between “a few” and “some,” but many people make the following mistake. I see it several times every week when marking essays for my IELTS writing correction service.

Last week, one of my students wrote:

This essay will explore few of the reasons for traffic congestion in major cities.

I changed it to:

This essay will explore a few of the reasons for traffic congestion in major cities.

Why?

Basically, “few” and “a few” have completely different meanings. I know, it’s really confusing! When we say “few,” we are emphasizing the fact that there are not many, but when we say “a few” we are emphasizing the fact that there are some – in other words, it is more than zero.

Basically, my student had written:

This essay will explore almost none of the reasons for traffic congestion in major cities.

How strange! 😆

Let’s focus on people. Look at the two examples that follow:

1. A few people came to his birthday party

2. Few people came to his birthday party.

In the first example, we know that some people came. Maybe it was two or three or four people. In the second example, it might be the same number, but the emphasis is on almost nobody. It really highlights the fact that there were not many guests.

When we say “few people” we are emphasizing the fact that almost nobody is doing this thing:

Few people disagree with life sentences for murderers.

Few people have ever thought about living on Mercury.

In both cases, we mean “almost nobody.”

Few vs A Few vs Some

Ok, so now we understand. Let’s go back to the first example and see why my student made a mistake:

  • While many feel men and women have equal capabilities at work, there are few who seem to disagree.

Grammatically, it seems fine, but logically it is suspicious. The word “many” agrees with “few” but this is not reflected in the cohesive device, “while.” This sentence needs to show the difference between the two parts. We can say one of the following:

While many feel men and women have equal capabilities at work, there are a few who seem to disagree.

While many feel men and women have equal capabilities at work, there are some who seem to disagree.

I picked “some” because it did not seem important to emphasize the lack of people who disagreed. We are trying to say that “many” people believe one thing but that “some” believe the other.

Test

Let’s have a test to see if you have understood the difference between few vs a few. You can post your answers below and I will put the correct answers at the bottom of this page. 👇👇👇

Fill in the blanks with the correct answer (few/a few/some):

  1. Peter is having a dinner party this Friday but he is worried that ______ people will turn up for it.
  2. I’m really thirsty. Can I have ______ water?
  3. There are ______ things that we need to discuss later. (emphasize that it is not too many)
  4. Do you have any plans later? I’m thinking of meeting _____ friends for a drink.
  5. There are _____ things that scare me in life, but spiders creep me out.
  6. I’m still waiting for _____ information before I make the booking.

Here is the quiz in image form if you wish to share it on social media. (I will share it on Facebook if you want to post your answered there.) The answers are on the left of the image.

few vs some quiz 724x1024 - Few vs A Few vs Some

Answers

  1. few
  2. some
  3. a few
  4. a few / some
  5. few
  6. some