This post looks at the differences between English determiners such as few, fewer, fewest, little, less, least. It is a common problem for many English language learners and even native speakers can confuse them whilst speaking.
A FEW, FEW, FEWER, FEWEST
= not many
We use FEW and A FEW with countable nouns (nouns we can count, one car, two cars etc)
Comparative and superlative: few, fewer, fewest
Few has a slightly negative meaning – not many, not as much as we thought or wanted. It is also more formal than ‘not many’
‘The journey didn’t take long today. There were few cars on the road.’
Compare with, ‘There weren’t many cars on the road.’
‘He has few friends. He prefers to be on his own.’
‘I am only inviting a few people to my party this year. Last year was crazy.’
‘We saw a few good films at the cinema last month.’
‘I want to have a few days off work next week. I need to visit my mother who is in hospital.’
We can also use ‘a few’ instead of a noun.
‘Would you like some of my chips? I can’t eat all of them.’ ‘Thanks, I’ll have a few.’
= not as many
‘Fewer people smoke today than twenty years ago.’
‘Shops are selling fewer newspapers these days because a lot of people read the news online.’
= the smallest number
‘Browntree University has the fewest applicants in the country.’
LITTLE, A LITTLE, LESS, LEAST
= a small amount
Little and a little are used with uncountable nouns, for example: water, information, air, time.
Comparative and superlative: little, less, least
Like ‘few’, little is used in a slightly negative way. There is not enough or not as much as expected.
‘The government said there was little information about the attack.’
‘Do you fancy a quick coffee?’ ‘I have a little time before my train. Yes, I’d love one, thanks.’
= not as much
‘Hurry up! We have less time than I thought. We need to be at the station in half an hour.’
‘In many companies, women still earn less than men.’
IMPORTANT: Many native speakers often use less with countable nouns when speaking. E.g. ‘There were less people there today’. However, in formal writing, it is important to try to use the correct form for countable and uncountable nouns.
= the lowest amount
‘Lincoln is the least expensive city for university students.’
This is not used as a determiner but is used as an adjective.
‘A lesser woman (one who is not as strong or brave) might have stopped by now.’
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