only a few vs only few

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hi, everyone! Here is a multiple choice that confuses me:

There are only ________ new words in the passage, but I know _______ of them.
A. some; all B. a few; none C. lots of; a few D. few; none

Which one is better? I would like to choose D, because " few" means "hardly any" or "two or three", and the conjunction word "but" indicates that even though the number of the new words are quite small, I still know none of them. But some people told me there is an expression " only a few", but never " only few", so the answer should be " B".
What's your opinion?
  • Beryl from Northallerton

    Senior Member
    British English
    Let's pretend we're not bothered by the meaning of 'new words' for a moment, and focus on the sentence structures instead.
    From this standpoint we note that in each case (A,B,C,D), the clause following the comma is correct, so that errors are only
    to be found in the clauses which precede the comma, at least according to the way I speak.

    A. There are only SOME new words in the passage :cross: .... (, but I know ALL of them.)

    B. There are only A FEW new words in the passage :tick: ..... (, but I know NONE of them.)

    C. There are only LOTS OF new words in the passage :cross: .... (, but I know A FEW of them.)

    D. There are only FEW new words in the passage :cross: .... (, but I know NONE of them.)

    You would like to choose D, but for me, D is to be rejected on the grounds of redundancy: the sense of 'only' is built in to the sense of 'few', so 'few' makes 'only' redundant.
    So I agree with your 'some people' in that the best answer is B.


    Senior Member
    It is the use of ONLY in sentence (D) which rules out FEW.

    I would probably not explain it as redundancy, but rather as connected to certain words that express quantity and are conceived of as a unit of some kind.

    I can say, "There are only twelve new words..."
    but NOT
    *There are only dozen new words...
    It has to be There are only a dozen new words.

    On the other hand, I would say
    There are only some new words presented in the lesson that I have never encountered before.

    That would apparently be because we never refer to "a some"

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