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Nov 21 2012   2:14PM GMT

Fine distinctions: “few” vs. “a few”

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

 

Which is correct?
Because online security is still far from perfect, there are _____ things to consider before launching into Cyber Monday shopping.
a. few
b. a few


Answer: b.

Explanation:
Although the difference between few and a few is subtle, mixing them up can totally change the meaning of your sentence.

A few translates to some: There are some things to consider before you start shopping online, because security is important. There may not be a large number of things to consider but the emphasis is on the fact that there are issues that you really should address before you start typing in your credit card number with merry abandon.

Few, used separately, translates to not many or an insignificant number. That wouldn’t make sense, in the context of security concerns about online shopping because it puts the emphasis on the small number of things to consider.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnson explains more about the difference between few and a few.

There’s a similar difference between little and a little.

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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