A few, a couple, several

< Previous | Next >

stephenlearner

Senior Member
Chinese
Hi,

Can you explain the differences between a few, a couple of and several?

Context:
There are 20 students in this class.
But today only a couple of them come.
A few come.
Several come.

Thank you.
 
  • PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I suggest you search for few, couple and several in the search box above.

    The terms are subjective and vary in the context. They are intentionally imprecise.

    In the meantime and to my mind:

    A couple - usually and mainly two, never less than two, but sometimes, 'not more than about 5%' of the total. A couple is very small relative to the total number possible.
    A few - a distinct minority, it is slightly more than a couple but probably less than 15% of the total. A few is small relative to the total number possible.
    Several - a number that is 'just a little larger than you would imagine given the circumstances'; several is still a number that is somewhat less than could have been there or done something.

    But the above may differ.
     
    Last edited:

    french_kiss

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Hi, I'm just going to bring back an old thread, because I've been wondering this for years..
    I learned that the difference between a couple, a few, several....all those was that:
    couple: 2 <-- I know that for sure, it's the only one with a strict definition
    few: 3
    several: 3+ (but could be the majority of people, which is different than what it says below)

    this is a quote from another post on another website:
    few is imprecise, only defined as 'more than one':
    1. Amounting to or consisting of a small number:
    2. Being more than one but indefinitely small in number:
    1. An indefinitely small number of persons or things:
    2. An exclusive or limited number:

    several:
    1. Being of a number more than two or three but not many: several miles away.
    2. An indefinite but small number; some or a few


    So, by these definitions, couple, few, and several could all mean two...

    * a couple is exactly two
    * a few is three, rarely four
    * several is at least three but small, not exceeding five
     

    dadane

    Senior Member
    English-London
    It's news to me that 'few' has ever had any definite numerical value, surely indefiniteness is the whole point of the word.

    If memory serves me right, according to Ripley's Believe It Or Not (the original edition) a few is exactly eight. They came up with this odd conclusion by rather creatively interpreting a sentence in the Bible.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    It's news to me that "a couple" always means "exactly two." Because while it usually does, it sometimes means "two or three." You'll find references to this uncertainty earlier in this thread.

    Can you tell us where you saw this, french_kiss? That is, what website are you quoting?
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Hi there! Which quantifiers are possible in the sentence?

    The teacher asked me ___ questions at the lesson.

    a) a couple of
    b) few
    c) a few
    d) several
    e) many

    How many items do they mean? Do they mean,
    a) a couple of = 2-4
    b) few =
    c) a few = 2-5
    d) several = 5-10
    e) many = I understand that here (as well as few) it's a subjective estimate

    Thanks!
     

    Juhasz

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    All of them are possible and mean approximately what you've suggested.

    If you left "b) few" blank because you were wondering about the meaning, it would be: the teacher asked fewer questions than one might have expected.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    Hi, Vronsky. As you can see, I've merged your thread with an earlier thread that talks about this same general topic. I think you'll find the answers to the earlier thread (as well as Juhasz's answer) useful. If you still have questions on this topic, though, feel free to add them to this thread.

    JustKate
    English Only moderator
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Thank you, Juhasz!

    It's strange. I'd guessed that 'several' means 5-10, but I read above "several is at least three but small, not exceeding five". What exactly does 'several' mean? Especially in the phrase "several times", like in the sentence,
    "He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions."​
    How many times did he ask?
     

    Juhasz

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    I don't think there's any clear line between several and a few. You're sure to find examples of "several" being used to describe more than five of something.

    Ah, here, I've just found a newspaper headline that reads, "Prisoners Stage Strikes in Several States." In fact, the hunger strikes are taking place in prisons in 24 states. There's also the legal phrase "the several states" which in fact means all 50 states, but that should probably be regarded as a special case.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    Thank you, Juhasz!

    It's strange. I'd guessed that 'several' means 5-10, but I read above "several is at least three but small, not exceeding five". What exactly does 'several' mean? Especially in the phrase "several times", like in the sentence,
    "He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions."​
    How many times did he ask?
    There is no exact meaning for "several" (or "a couple" or "a few"). They are inherently inexact. If you want to be exact, you have to find another words, e.g., "He asked me seven times."

    (Cross-posted with Juhasz)
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Juhasz and JustKate, thank you very much!

    They are inherently inexact.
    I understand but what does 'several times' approximately mean in my example from a book,

    "He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions."​

    What does 'several times' say to you? I don't need an exact number.

    I'll give more context in case if it's needed.

    "Afterwards, one of my commanders came by to chat... We discussed the battle sequence... He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions. I pardoned myself and rejoined Elizabeth. During the course of that evening, I saw him several times. Each time, it seemed as if he were watching me and would nod casually. It was, to say the least, unsettling.'​
     
    Last edited:

    Enquiring Mind

    Senior Member
    English - the Queen's
    Hi Vronsky, in this phrase it means "a number of times" :D. It probably means repeatedly, but on different occasions, and not necessarily on every occasion. On many occasions when we spoke, he asked me. But, as already stated, it's vague (just like the Russian equivalent). More than once, more than twice ...
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    But, as already stated, it's vague (just like the Russian equivalent). More than once, more than twice ...
    What equivalent are you talking about? If you use the Google translator, it translates both phrases "a few times" and "several times" into Russian absolutely alike. So, I don't quite understand the difference.

    Let's say, the teacher asked me 3 times during the lesson. Can I say, "The teacher asked me several times"?
     

    Tegs

    Mód ar líne
    English (Ireland)
    Several times, a couple of times or a few times would all be ok in that case Vronsky. I wouldn't use several times for twice though, whereas a couple and a few would also be ok for twice.

    A small correction of your earlier post (#7): asked me during/in the lesson (not 'at').
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Thank you, Tegs!

    As I see now, 'a few' means a small number of something, and 'several' means simply a number of something but not a large number.
     

    Tegs

    Mód ar líne
    English (Ireland)
    Yes, that's right. If you said 'there are several cars outside your house' I would think maybe 5 or 6 cars, not 20 (that would be 'lots of cars').
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    Juhasz and JustKate, thank you very much!


    I understand but what does 'several times' approximately mean in my example from a book,

    "He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions."​

    What does 'several times' say to you? I don't need an exact number.

    I'll give more context in case if it's needed.

    "Afterwards, one of my commanders came by to chat... We discussed the battle sequence... He asked me several times about family, but I avoided the questions. I pardoned myself and rejoined Elizabeth. During the course of that evening, I saw him several times. Each time, it seemed as if he were watching me and would nod casually. It was, to say the least, unsettling.'​
    In this particular context, this particular individual (that is, me) would interpret "several times" to mean "approximately 3-4 times." But in other contexts, "several" might mean something different. And there are individual differences in how people use/interpret this word, too.

    For example, while you might wonder if "a few times" would work here," you could also wonder whether "many times" would work here. Several is somewhere between "a few" and "many," but there's no way to tell which one it happens to be closer to.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    Hi there! Which quantifiers are possible in the sentence?

    The teacher asked me ___ questions at the lesson.

    a) a couple of
    b) few
    c) a few
    d) several
    e) many

    How many items do they mean? Do they mean,
    a) a couple of = 2-4
    b) few =
    c) a few = 2-5
    d) several = 5-10
    e) many = I understand that here (as well as few) it's a subjective estimate

    Thanks!
    "A couple of questions" is two questions, but saying the teacher asked a couple of questions does not rule out subsequent questions.

    "Few questions" is a negative idea. Saying the teacher asked few questions is saying the teacher did not ask many questions.

    "A few questions" usually means a small number of questions, but "quite a few questions" means something more like "many questions".

    "Several" means "multiple" or "distinct". "Several questions" is clearly more than one, and it may be just a couple, but it is likely to be more.

    "Many" means a large number.

    Of all of these, only "a couple" references a definite number (i.e. 2). The others are relative, and based more on subjective ideas than on definite numbers or ranges.
     

    zaffy

    Senior Member
    Polish
    "She gave me a couple of books for my birthday"

    I know in BE it means 'a few' books, that is, more than two. I've been told in AE it means just two books. Is that right?
     

    zaffy

    Senior Member
    Polish
    So how often do they come to Manchester? Every two months or every few months?


    A: How often do you come to Manchester?
    B: Every couple of months

    1572700606514.png
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    In general, I would interpret that as two to three. But that's an average. They could come this month and then next month and then not for three months. It averages out to once every two to three months.

    If they were on a regular, fixed schedule then they would say that. "We come every other month." "We come every two months" "We come every third month." Etc.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    So do BE and AE speakers use 'a couple of' in a different way or not?
    From the WRF entry from the American dictionary.
    (WordReference Random House Learner's Dictionary of American English © 2019)
    USAGE NOTE
    Compare pair and couple, ...
    Only couple has the sense of "a few, several,'' as in a couple of miles away. couple therefore can mean "two (or more)'';
    It's not an AE/BE difference: some AE and BE speakers do restruct "couple" to meannig "only, and never more than, two*", but they are not the majority. And in any case, it is just as futile to ask for black and white anwers to questions like this as it is to give a precise numerical answer to the question "How many is 'several'?". They are imprecise, so obsessing about a number is a waste of time.

    'Five to seven times a year' is probably the same as 'every two or three months', isn't it?
    Yes, and the same as every couple of months :D (That's why the post was made :eek: )

    * I expect they have an image of two people in their minds, and "a couple" without any following words is restricted to two and is the only meaning of the word they admit :D Afterthought: if those people feel that way, they should just say "two" :eek:
     
    Last edited:

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    You can have parts of months but not parts of people.

    Every couple of months doesn't necessarily mean one or two or three or four full months as measures. It can mean 1 month and 3 weeks or 2 months and 2 weeks or 3 months and 1 week between instances. But it averages out to around two to three.

    People have to be in whole units. I would generally take "a couple of people" to mean two but it's not set in stone. A few people is more vague and depends on the context.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    You can have parts of months but not parts of people.


    People have to be in whole units. I would generally take "a couple of people" to mean two but it's not set in stone. A few people is more vague and depends on the context.
    I understand we are not discussing partial people :eek: but what would be a distinction (if any) between a couple, a couple of people and two people?
    a grouping of two persons, such as a married pair, or dance partners:What a lovely couple they make.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top