From Middle English fewe (“few”), from Old English fēawa, fēawe, fēa (“few”), from Proto-Germanic *fawaz (“few”), from Proto-Indo-European *ph₁w- (“few, small”). Cognate with Old Saxon fā (“few”), Old High German fao, fō (“few, little”), Old Norse fár (“few”), Gothic 𐍆𐌰𐍅𐌰𐌹 (fawai, “few”), Latin paucus (“little, few”) (whence English pauper, poor etc.). More at poor.
- (UK) IPA(key): /fjuː/
- (US) IPA(key): /fju/
Audio (US) (file)
Audio (UK) (file)
- Rhymes: -uː
- Homophone: phew
- (preceded by another determiner) An indefinite, but usually small, number of.
2013 August 10, “A new prescription”, The Economist, volume 408, number 8848:
- No sooner has a [synthetic] drug been blacklisted than chemists adjust their recipe and start churning out a subtly different one. These “legal highs” are sold for the few months it takes the authorities to identify and ban them, and then the cycle begins again.
- I was expecting lots of people at the party, but very few (=almost none) turned up. Quite a few of them (=many of them) were pleasantly surprised. I don't know how many drinks I've had, but I've had a few. [This usage is likely ironic.]
- (used alone) Not many; a small (in comparison with another number stated or implied) but somewhat indefinite number of.
- There are few people who understand quantum theory. Many are called, but few are chosen.
- (meteorology, of clouds) (US?) Obscuring one eighth to two eighths of the sky.
- Tonight: A few clouds. Increasing cloudiness overnight.
- NOAA definition of the term "few clouds": An official sky cover classification for aviation weather observations, descriptive of a sky cover of 1/8 to 2/8. This is applied only when obscuring phenomenon aloft are present--that is, not when obscuring phenomenon are surface-based, such as fog.
- (meteorology, of rainfall with regard to a location) (US?) Having a 10 percent chance of measurable precipitation (0.01 inch); used interchangeably with isolated.
Although indefinite in nature, a few is usually more than two (two often being referred to as "a couple of"), and less than "several". If the sample population is say between 5 and 20, a few would mean three or four, but no more than this. However, if the population sample size were in the millions, "a few" could refer to several hundred items. In other words, few in this context means a very very small percentage but way over the 3 or 4 usually ascribed to it its use with much much smaller numbers. Few is grammatically affirmative but semantically negative, and it can license negative polarity items. For example, lift a finger usually cannot be used in affirmative sentences, but can be used in sentences with few.
- He didn't lift a finger to help us.
- He lifted a finger to help us. (ungrammatical)
- Few people lifted a finger to help us.
- A few people lifted a finger to help us. (ungrammatical)
- Fewer people lifted a finger to help us. (ungrammatical)
- little (see usage)
- The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.
- Few people, few things.
- Many are called, but few are chosen.
- Meteorology (both senses)