Few vs. Several

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Norma H. Flaskerud wonders about few and several.

She thinks “a few” refers to “maybe 2-3 items” while “several” refers to “maybe 3-6.” Her husband says “a few” is 4-7 items.

Few is the opposite of many. It derives from words having the meaning of “small” and “little.” It is related to Latin paucus (little, few) and even puer (child/boy). Old English feawe/fea derives from a Germanic root meaning “little.”

The number implied in the word few is “more than two,” Beyond that, trying to specify how many more is fruitless.

I expect the New Testament writer was anticipating more than 2-7 converts when writing:

Many are called, but few are chosen.

In 1940 Winston Churchill was referring to the pilots of the Royal Air Force when he wrote:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

“The Few” became a name for this group of fliers: 2,353 British subjects and 574 volunteers from overseas.

Several comes from a word meaning “existing apart.” Before it came to mean “more than one” (about 1530), it was used with the meanings “separate, various, diverse, different.”

In legal use several preserves the meaning of “separate.” In the following example it is used to show that liability is enforceable separately against each party

the contractual liability of each company to insured is several and not joint —

In keeping with its original meaning, several may be used to separate one group from another:

A large crowd of soldiers gathered to protest the law. Several were women.

The word several, usually an adjective or pronoun, has also been used as a verb. A farmer or community would “several” a large expanse of land into smaller parcels.

It would seem that few and several can imply any number you want them to.

By the way, in checking the Churchill quotation, I re-read the speech in which it appears. It’s worth the time of any writer who is looking for models of beautifully-written English prose.

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11 Responses to “Few vs. Several”

  • Brad K.

    Few usually seems to mean a ration, a small portion, rather than a distinct number. The Few that Winston Churchill referred to was a small portion of the ‘many’, the population of England, and possibly the world.

    Few is always plural, for me, that is more than one. But a few of the dozen chickens in my Bantam flock would be a smaller number than a few of the calves in my neighbor’s pasture. Going with the homily of ‘French’ counting (one, two, and the next number is many), I would assume that few meant less than 1/3, but more than a ‘couple’. Couple is the word I would use to mean 2-3, usually. That is, I would mean a small number of 2-3 is a couple, rather than a small fraction that would mean a few. Few implies a larger context or population.

    I like the ‘sever’ implication of several. Thanks!

  • Don Vaillancourt

    What Brad states reflects what I was thinking as well. Few seems to be relative to the size of the whole.

    As for several meaning existing apart makes sense as well. People don’t use it within the context of its definition, but regardless, the use of the word still works.

  • guardian angel

    I always think that few and several are not interchangeable, but it is only now that I learned about their proper use.

    Another quality lesson from you that I should be thankful.

  • Alfa King

    Good insight into the origins of these words.

  • cmdweb

    I agree with Brad. I use ‘a couple’ in speech but rarely in writing. A few to me would mean more than a couple but less than a handful – oh no, what’s a handful…??

  • Ali

    I would say that a couple HAS to be two exactly… three’s a crowd. 😉

  • Don Vaillancourt

    A handful is more than a mouthful, or less, depending on the person.

    I agree with Ali that a couple should be two. But if you look at its use, coupling things together can imply more than two. But usually coupling involves two at the actual time of coupling.

    More than two results in polycoupling. And really, wasn’t there a raid in Texas a while back because of that.

  • Mary

    Hi:
    from 0% to 100% what percentages do most, many, several, some, not many and a number of correlate with?

  • Jeff

    Just my two cents, nothing to really to back it up by my own opinion.

    Dependent upon situation, 3 examples:

    As a proportion to a whole.
    Of the responses ______, made sense.

    a couple set # 2-4
    a handful set # 5-10
    few 0 – 2%
    a few 2 – 5%
    several 5- 25%
    many 25 – 50%
    the majority 50-75%
    Most 75 – 90%
    nearly all 90-99%
    All 100%

    In counting:
    _____ people showed up for the swap meet.

    A couple 2
    A few 3-5
    a handful 5-7
    several 7-10

    It changes for when adding multipliers:

    a hundred or so 100-150
    A couple hundred 151-250
    a few hundred 251-450
    several hundred 450-999

  • Jo

    I know these posts are rather old, but they are fascinating nonetheless.

    what came to my mind while deliberating the post was the distinction between:

    I have few friends

    I have a few friends

    In my mind, the relevance of the whole has no bearing here…

  • Dwain

    To me a few refers to less than one might expect, such as, ” he made a few mistakes”. Whereas several refers to more than one might expect, such as, “he made several mistakes”. In the first case it tells me that the person did good and didn’t make as many mistakes as I might expect. The second case tells me that the person’s performance wasn’t as good as I might expect.

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