a few/ several

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lightheart

Senior Member
Sichuan,China-Chinese
I searched a lot previous threads about the distinctions of the two phrases, but got even more confused cuz a lot native speakers do suggest that several is like 4 or 5, while a few is possibly 3 or 4.

There is a test where you need to find which part is not good English and replace it which a better alternative, and here is an extraction from it:
John has only read several articles on this subject.

The reference answer is: several—> a few

So what exactly is the difference between the two here? Hope you guys can help me, thanks!
 
  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    The important difference here is that "several" does not go together with "only". "Several" could be any number (well, there would have to be at least three, I think). I saw several birds in the garden yesterday could mean over 100, for example.

    While "a few" is equally vague in terms of the exact number it represents, it usually means fewer than what may be expected, and it often goes with "only".
     

    Egmont

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    "A few" implies that there could have been more of something. "Several" does not carry this implication. The use of "only" in the quoted sentence tells us that the writer believes John should have, or at least could have, read more articles. That is why "a few" is correct, not because the two words mean different specific numbers.
     

    lightheart

    Senior Member
    Sichuan,China-Chinese
    "A few" implies that there could have been more of something. "Several" does not carry this implication. The use of "only" in the quoted sentence tells us that the writer believes John should have, or at least could have, read more articles. That is why "a few" is correct, not because the two words mean different specific numbers.
    That’s really a vague implication, but anyway thanks!
     

    lightheart

    Senior Member
    Sichuan,China-Chinese
    The important difference here is that "several" does not go together with "only". "Several" could be any number (well, there would have to be at least three, I think). I saw several birds in the garden yesterday could mean over 100, for example.

    While "a few" is equally vague in terms of the exact number it represents, it usually means fewer than what may be expected, and it often goes with "only".
    So it’s more about the undertone of the two expressions—“several” is usually more positive while “a few” could be negative--rather than their exact reference for numbers?
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Actually this sentence is surprising, because usually 'a few' is positive in tone, whereas plain 'few' is negative. 'Only a few' changes the tone from positive to negative (we don't say :cross:'only few').

    John has read a few articles on it. [so he's not completely ignorant about it]
    John has read few articles on it. [so he's rather ignorant]
    John has only read a few articles on it. [so he's rather ignorant]
     
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