a few /several /a number of / a lot of / many

Discussion in 'English Only' started by nicole0087, Oct 7, 2006.

  1. nicole0087 Member

    hello, everyone.
    How can I differentiate "a few","several","a number of","a lot of" and "many" ?
    If I say "There are ___ people in the classroom.", I think every one can be used. But I guess defferent number of people should correspond to different word.Then how to use them?

    Thank you!
  2. haywire Senior Member

    New Orleans, LA
    US - English
    It's fairly subjective.

    I'd just say something like:

    A few: More than one but less than maybe three to five.

    Several: More than two but less than five or so.

    A number of: More than two or three. I don't know if there's an upper limit on this. One could say "I have a number of options." could be ten, could be a hundred.

    A lot: A large number, maybe like 25 or more (very very subjective)

    Many: Same as a lot.

    Hard question to answer.
  3. nicole0087 Member

    Thank you haywire!
    That is really a hard question:(
  4. . 1 Banned

    Ferntree Gully
    Australian Australia
    A couple is two.
    A few is three or four.
    Several is up to five.
    A number of is indeterminate.
    A lot of is more than five and less than infinity.
    Many - see a lot.

  5. broud Senior Member

    Sydney - Australia
    Spain - Spanish
    I like the explanation by .,, (btw, where are you in Australia? I've got tons of questions about AusEng :p) but you should keep in mind that many times the criteria to choose the proper word is totally subjective: you forgot to mention "few" which can mean 'three or four', but it will be preferred over "a few" depending on the speaker's intention.
  6. nicole0087 Member

    Thank you for all of your explainations!
    But I always think "few" means "no" or "nothing", "nobody".Is it means three or four?
  7. viera Senior Member

    Paris suburb
    For me a couple of is not exactly two. It means approximately 2, sometimes 3, or even 4.

    Few is not the same as a few. Few means not many, fewer than expected.

    But all the figures given are not hard and fast. They depend on the context. A few countries in the world can be 10 or 20. Several countries can be 40 or 50. And a few stars can be over a hundred.
  8. Smac

    Smac Senior Member

    UK English
    Quite right! :) A number described as "a few" is always relative to what it might have been (and smaller than it might have been).
    There were a few people in the crashed car: probably not more than 4.
    There were a few people on the bus: probably not more than 12.
    There were a few people in the stadium: probably not more than 100.

    I think "several" and "a number of" usually mean "about the number I would expect" and "a lot of" and "many" mean "more than I would expect". Again, the corresponding numbers depend on the context.
  9. Lucretia Senior Member

    So it seems my conception was correct - several means a bit more than a few . I'm afraid they are not interchangeable. Or are they?
    N. - Could you lend me a couple of French books?
    S. - Sorry, I only have a few and I need them myself.
    T. - I've got several and I could bring you a couple.
  10. Smac

    Smac Senior Member

    UK English
    Not interchangeable in most situations and your examples are perfect. :)
  11. nicole0087 Member

    So can I draw a conclusion that [ "few" means "fewer than what I expexted, but no nothing", "several" and "a number of" usually mean "about the number I would expect" and "a lot of" and "many" mean "more than I would expect". The corresponding numbers depend on the context.]?:(
  12. Smac

    Smac Senior Member

    UK English
    Yes, that is how I would use these terms, though I am not sure that there is complete agreement about them among native speakers of English.

    And I do not mean to imply that by using one of them I would be explicitly referring to my own expectations. I mentioned "expectations" as a way of indicating the sort of number indicated by each of these imprecise expressions, as already suggested by viera.
  13. nicole0087 Member

    Thank you, and I think i can understand what you mean.:)
  14. dec-sev Senior Member

    Is 'several' only about a quantity of someting (up to 5) or about anything else?
    These sentences are from a test. The student must choose between 'several' and 'some':

    1.-Have you got only one picture of your son?
    - No, I've got (some, several). You can take one of them.

    2. There are (some, several) theatres in this city and they are very good.

    What does the student have to be guided by choosing between 'some' and several? There is no further context, just these sentences.
  15. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
  16. dec-sev Senior Member

    I've followed the links and my conclusion is as follows:

    A: Have you got only one picture of your son?
    B: No, I've got several. You can take one of them.

    B has 2-5 pictures, but he is not sure about the exact number.

    A: Have you got only one picture of your son?
    B: No, I've got some. You can take one of them.

    B has some photos. They are more than 5.

    The same goes for the theaters.

    Is my interpretation correct? As I've said the examples above are part of a test and if a student is to make a choice one of the variants is suposed to be right an the other wrong. What do you think?
  17. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    Your second example should also be "several." Can't come up with a reason, though.:confused:
  18. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Several is, for me, the most questionable and the most subjective. I'm not originally from Indiana (which is in the Midwestern U.S.), but I've lived here a long time and have more or less acclimated. However, one of the things that's continued to puzzle me is how people here will sometimes use several in sentences in which I'd use many or quite a few, and the only way you can tell that they mean many is by context and tone of voice. For example, someone in his 50s or 60s will be talking about something that happened when he was in high school, and he'll say, "Oh, this was several years ago."

    But in general, I agree with what the others have said. I also agree with Viera that while "a couple" is around 2, but it might be as many as 3.
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2012
  19. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    I thought long and hard about your question, dec-sev, helped by looking at the OED and reminding myself that the meaning of several used today has drifted from its original meaning so that there is very little difference between several and some. I'd see the question as a very unfair one for English learners.

    suggests that you have a number of separately identifiable objects. Some suggests that you have a number of objects that are not necessarily distinguishable from each other.

    There are some theatres in the town would do as a simple statement of fact, like I have some apples. Add the additional they are very good and you are identifying them as having the potential to differ from each other (even though, in this case, they are all good).

    There are several theatres in town and they are all very good becomes the appropriate way of saying it. You could go further:
    There are several theatres in town. Some are very good. Here some is used to bundle them together as all the same - these are the good ones, those are the bad ones.

    Likewise with your photographs. The conversation matters.
    I have some photos of my son. You can have one. That's perfectly natural.


    A: Have you got only one picture of your son?
    B: No, I've got several. You can take one of them.

    The several is a response to the only one in the question. You have a number of photos, not just one, and you are quite happy to peel one of them off to give to A.

    I feel that suggesting that some or several means less than 5 or more than 5 is nonsense. If I have about half a pack of cards I could say I have several cards, which equates to about 26. However, several is limited, and I doubt anybody would use several if they meant about 100.

    The other difference, of course, is that several cannot apply to uncountables.
  20. dec-sev Senior Member

    When would you say "this was several years ago" and when "This was some years ago"?
    @Andygc: Thank you for your exhaustive explanation!
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2012
  21. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    I would see that as a perfectly normal use of several. The OED dates that usage back to 1661 with the meaning

    As a vague numeral: Of an indefinite (but not large) number exceeding two or three; more than two or three but not very many. (The chief current sense.)

    several, adj., adv., and n.
    Second edition, 1989; online version March 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/176914>; accessed 05 June 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1912.
  22. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I wouldn't - but other people here in Indiana (native-born Hoosiers - I am merely a transplant :)) do it fairly often. I have never completely figured out a pattern for when they say "some years" and when they say "several," but as far as I can tell, it's used when they want to emphasize that there were more than a few of whatever they're talking about. It seems paradoxical to use a word such as several that normally means "not that many" to emphasize the fact that it was really "quite a few," but that is indeed what they seem to do.

    I think this is a peculiarity in the speech of people from Indiana and perhaps surrounding areas, so I wouldn't want you to think it's something you can expect from a majority of native speakers. I brought it up only because it's an example of how much variation there is among native speakers on the topic of several, many, some, a few, etc.

    Like Andy said, it really isn't a fair question for English learners. Asking the question seems to imply that there are right and wrong answers, and lots of times, there really are not. So much depends on context, tone of voice, and idiom that it really is very hard to quantify even vaguely.
  23. Smac

    Smac Senior Member

    UK English
    These two seem to me to be equivalent for practical purposes. Both are stressing that the event was not recent and I do not think that one suggests an earlier event than the other, though both imply that it was probably more than three years ago.

    However, you can say, 'this was some time ago', which also means that it was not recent, but the time scale might not be measured in years. For instance, 'I bought this milk some time ago' means it is not perfectly fresh but it may only be a week old.

    You can intensify the expression to imply an even earlier event than that by saying, 'This was quite some time ago'. Here you are stressing that the event was considerably earlier than one might have expected. Similarly, you can say, 'this was quite some years ago', or more naturally, 'this was quite a few years ago'.

    But you cannot say, 'this was quite several years ago'. I think this reflects a very subtle distinction between 'several' and 'some'. 'Several' focuses on a number of countable things whereas 'some' can also be applied to a quantity of something, as previously noted by Andygc.
  24. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    In context - and I blame myself for not making this clearer - the meaning of several actually is "quite a few." If you have a person in his 50s talking about something that occurred while he was in high school and saying it happened "several years ago" (and this is something that's happened to me many times since I moved to Indiana), several would refer to more than 30. That to me seems closer to "many" than to "a few." But as I said earlier, this isn't how I use the word, it's merely how I've heard the word used by others.
  25. kalamazoo Senior Member

    US, English
    I agree with Viera about "couple" which means not only 2 but also just generally 'a few' and so can refer to 2, 3 and even more sometimes. I use it this way and the dictionary says it's okay, but I do get corrected by people sometimes. I say "I went to France a couple of years ago" and someone says "No, you went to France three years ago."
  26. LiteralGospel New Member

    Western English
    There is a common thread in these responses, a consensus of sorts. The initial number that represents a "few" is mostly stated as 3. However the upper number representations are scattered. Taking all points of view into account, find the common thread(s), and the majority's opinion. Subsequently, 2 definitively represents a pair, the first number that represents a few is 3 (which makes perfect sense because it is the first number greater than 2), the first number representing several is 4, and so on. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that the responses to this post span more than a few years (3), and more than several years (4). This question has been answered from October 2006, until March 2013, which definitely qualifies as "a number" of years (to say the least).
  27. DidoCarthage New Member

    English - western Canada

    I would say either in most circumstances. "Some years ago" does rather emphasize that it was a long time ago, but I'd say "several" easily overlaps "some".

    To some extent it depends on the age of the speaker - like the other words discussed earlier, they're kind of about what portion of the whole you mean. So for me, at 65, "some years ago" invokes a longer time span than it would coming from a 20yo.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 13, 2015
  28. I too admire Angygc's thorough explanation of several. Also, to me, it's somehow got a different register or feel about it, one of lackadaisical casualness about the number or choices involved, a kind of shrugging of the shoulders to indicate, "but I'm not too excited about this, and it might tire me to go into more detail."
  29. Anglish New Member

    English - American
    In the Midwestern States as well as many other rural areas in the States, people commonly use "some, "a few," or "several," in a colloquial way that means a lot more than expressed. It's sort of a charming, casual, sarcastic or facetious way of saying it; it has become so embedded in the cultural jargon that, if asked, people probably wouldn't say or feel they're being that way. It's kind of "cutesie" or even a type of verbal irony. "It was some years ago," means it was more than a couple...a lot more probably. "Quite a few" when broken down, literally means a very small amount yet always functions as an indeterminately larger amount than is worth counting at the present moment. "Several years ago..." The only thing certain about that one is that it wasn't recent (like last year) and it wasn't before, say, WWII.

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