# How many is a few?June 29, 2007 9:18 PM   Subscribe

How many is a few? Ms. 71 thinks it to be three exactly. I disagree and think the term is relative.
posted by josher71 to Science & Nature (70 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

couple = two
few = three
some = four
several = five
many = >six

yes, this is totally arbitrary, but it's what I think of when I hear these, though I do agree that few could be more than three but not less.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:23 PM on June 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

I agree that it is relative. I believe it to be more than 2 but less than 10.
posted by horsemuth at 9:23 PM on June 29, 2007

A couple is two (possibly 2 and a half, if we're talking about cookies.) A few is three, unless you're talking about people, in which case, it could be as many as six. Once you invite seven or more people over, it's a bunch. 11 is the outer limit of few for items (especially cookies.)

These are highly scientific measurements. Please don't ask for cite. I have to go get a handful of cookies (approximately 47) now, I'm famished. Seriously, though- I essentially agree with you. Few is relative. A few cookies is way more than a few people.
posted by headspace at 9:24 PM on June 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

it's utterly relative. if mrs. 71 were right, there would only be three u.s. marines in the entire corps.
posted by bruce at 9:25 PM on June 29, 2007 [8 favorites]

Relatively speaking it is exactly about three.
posted by peacay at 9:26 PM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

"A few" is never less than three, but could sometimes be a couple more. If it always meant "exactly three", why would one ever say "a few" instead of "three"? The whole point of terms like "a couple" and "a few" is that they're inexact.

"I'm having a few people over" does not mean "I have invited three people to my house, and all of them are definitely coming over, and they will all be unaccompanied".

Oh wait, did you tell her you had "a few" drinks?
posted by contraption at 9:28 PM on June 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

"not many but more than one"
posted by b1tr0t at 9:28 PM on June 29, 2007

I think that Ms. 71 would be rather put out at illustrious institutions such as...oh, the BMV, for example. "Just wait right over there for a few minutes while we make your new driver's license." (Ms. 71 tapping foot after 5 minutes)
posted by Liosliath at 9:29 PM on June 29, 2007

In the context of 'a few drinks' it would be surprising if it was ever three.
posted by sien at 9:29 PM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

exlotuseater is exactly correct.
posted by brain cloud at 9:29 PM on June 29, 2007

I think it really depends on the usage on where the person grew up.

For me "a few" is two to four and "a couple" is two or three.
I grew up in Los Angeles. In Seattle was where I first became aware of the use of "a couple" as meaning exactly two (which does make logical sense, but who says language is logical?)
posted by ShooBoo at 9:29 PM on June 29, 2007

a few means 2 or 3, it is non-descript but no more than that. a couple is fixed. some is much more vague, and depends on the application.
posted by edtut at 9:32 PM on June 29, 2007

What does she think "I had a few words with him" means?
posted by vacapinta at 9:33 PM on June 29, 2007

For me, a couple = 2 or 3, a few = 4 or 5, several = 6 or more.
posted by pineapple at 9:33 PM on June 29, 2007

My argument about a "couple" being 2 OR 3 is thus :

When I used to go to the rollerskating rink (where all the fly honies were at), the "DJ" (using the term loosely) would say over the 'rink intercom

Alrightnow... it's time for COUPLE SKATING. That's right, grab your couples. This is COUPLE SKATING ONLY. That means 2 OR 3 skaters together only. COUPLES ONLY, PEOPLE - 2 OR 3...

Ergo : a "couple" is 2 or 3.

A "few" can be 3 or 4, but I don't think it should ever be used in a situation where the difference between 3 or 4 actually means something.
posted by revmitcz at 9:37 PM on June 29, 2007

I think it is highly dependent on context. For instance, a few people over for a party (3-7 perhaps) is different from only a few people showing up at a conference (30 instead of 300).

I also fall in with those who agree that a few can sometimes mean as few as two.

I certainly don't agree that for most people the words "few", "some" and so forth correspond to an exact number. But I think exlotuseater got the general order right. For a given person in a given context, those words will always progress in that order.

Consider the worlds of difference between "We're planning to hire a few people" and "We're planning to fire a few people."
posted by dhartung at 9:41 PM on June 29, 2007

There's a hilarious bit by Scott McCloud about the genius of Ernie Bushmiller (of Nancy fame), and how when he drew rocks in the background of his comics, there were always three. And that's because three is the minimum amount of rocks you can use to indicate "some" rocks.
posted by O9scar at 9:44 PM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

A few may be two, but a couple may NEVER BE THREE.
posted by solotoro at 9:48 PM on June 29, 2007

Depends on what you are counting:

Going for a few beers = 3 or more
Eating a few chips = less than contents of bag
Had a few minutes left at the end of the lesson = less than 15
etc.

If few=exactly three, the word would fall out of use, or we would count "one, two, few, four..."
posted by Meatbomb at 9:50 PM on June 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Relative. Although I have a distinct memory of my sister explaining that a couple is 2, as in "a couple walking down the street." And she told me "a few" was 3, but this was in relation to me want a some of her candy. She said I could have a few pieces and when I went for more than 3, I was over my limit.

But I still say relative. If I said "A few people still believe Bigfoot is real" we all would know that would more than 3 to 10 people, and more like in the thousands, or maybe tens of thousands. On the other hand, if I said "I just have a few dollars on me" you would probably picture under 20, maybe even under 5. If someone says "a few people still support Bush," you would know it was more like 3 or 4 people.

So... relative.
posted by The Deej at 9:51 PM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

It means a small number, but more than one.

BTW, next time you want to know what a word means, I hear there are these things called dictionaries that are pretty good for that sort of thing.
posted by jejune at 9:53 PM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Threeish.
posted by lemuria at 9:56 PM on June 29, 2007

I instinctively think three, but I know it's one of those words you need to be flexible with on occasion. So, usually three, but maybe more.
posted by ml98tu at 9:56 PM on June 29, 2007

BTW, next time you want to know what a word means, I hear there are these things called dictionaries that are pretty good for that sort of thing.

good but not perfect. I think that this is a regional/cultural thing and its not so rigidly defined as that.
posted by vacapinta at 9:57 PM on June 29, 2007

Have you heard of the Sorites paradox? It has to do with using language to describe things that are really imprecise. How many grains of sand does it take to make a heap? How many hairs does a person lose before they are "balding"? Have you made a hole when you dig one shovelful of dirt? Half a shovelful? A spoonful*? There's no such thing as half a pile, and no such thing as half a hole.

IANAPhilosopher, but I think that people use words like "few" and "some" to try to correct for this vagueness, whether they know it or not. But language being as imprecise as it is means that these words end up falling prey to the same vagueness problem, and become piles and holes themselves.

In other words, I think dhartung is right; if you want to know what one person means by a "few," you have to look at the context. If you want to know what everyone means by a "few," there's no real answer.

*You have bigger problems than this one if you're trying to dig a hole with a spoon, but you know what I mean.
posted by bluishorange at 10:06 PM on June 29, 2007

I don't think there's an exact answer to it. To me (a Minnesotan, if that has any bearing), a couple, a few, and several are for the most part interchangeable. Some is more than a couple/few/several, and many is more than that.
posted by flod logic at 10:21 PM on June 29, 2007

Y'all are N-V-T-S nuts. A few is an indeterminate small number. If it were not indeterminate, a sane person would give the exact number that they know and say "I'm inviting three people over" or "I am going to have four beers."

Josher71 is right and Mrs. 71 is wrong. Not wrong as in merely incorrect, wrong like the sort of person who hangs the toilet paper underhand or cuts a PB&J into rectangles.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:29 PM on June 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

I remember seeing a study quoted somewhere that found that it rapidly becomes harder to several items at a time in groups of more than five. I think that perhaps relatedly, a few usually does not mean more than five. I think it can mean anything more than two (so three, although in some cases it can even mean just two) up through five, most of the time. Sometimes it can mean an indeterminate number in that range, where neither the speaker nor the listener knows how many exactly (in these cases it is more realistic for it to mean more than 5), or it can mean a specific number that the speaker does know that they do not feel it is necessarly to communicate exactly to the listener.

Also, I would add that it can commonly mean however many individual pieces/units/whatever of something that one can easily and reasonably carry or grab. So if one were to say, "will you give me a few pieces of popcorn," I would take that to mean anywhere from 3-5 up to a small handful that I do not need to make any effort in order to successfully grab in one try. Likewise, if someone were to say, "bring a few of those logs over here," I would take that to mean anywhere from 3-5 up to however many I can carry in my arms unprecariously.

I (also a minnesotan, but I have also lived a significant part of my life, including part of my formative years, in Kansas City) take several to mean anywhere from the higher range of a few up to maybe 10 or so, in terms of exact numbers, or toward the upper limit of what one can actually grab/hold/carry. So a few and several are partially, and sometimes interchangeable, but not completely always interchangeable, to me. Of course nobody's definition is right or wrong. Just some people's definitions are closer to what the plurality or majority think, and some are a bit different.

Also, while Bruce's answer was clever, I think the vast majority would agree that there is a definite difference between "a few" and "the few". To the extent that if he were to use them interchangeably, it might create very significant challenges to communicating his ideas. That is when a definition might be said to be wrong.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 10:39 PM on June 29, 2007

Oddly, I've been having this same conversation over the past few weeks with my 9 year old, who is very literal-minded and having trouble grappling with words representing relative concepts. We did several (hah) rounds of him demanding to know exactly how many is a couple, a few, a bunch, several, some, etc.

I defined all of the above as relative, with the exception of "couple", which I felt is exactly two when labeling a person, animal, or thing, and at least two but less than 30% of the total of measurements (minutes or miles, for example). That accidentally lead to an acceptable solution for him and we worked out the following formulas (all non-scientifically pulled out of my ass for the sake of some brief blessed quiet from incessant questioning), for the other words:

few = no less than three out of 10, ~3% when >10.
bunch = no less than 6 out of 10 + ~25% when >10.
several = no less than seven when <2 5 + ~10% when>10.

I realize these don't scale consistently, I left that to him to correct at some point. I also told him to factor the ~ as "round up when the outcome favors you, as in 'more cookies' and round down when the outcome doesn't favor you, as in 'more Brussels sprouts'."
posted by jamaro at 10:40 PM on June 29, 2007

Let us consider it in various usages:

"Was he drunk?"
Anywhere from 2 to 7.

"Few people really believe the president is is still in command of his faculties"
This could actual evaluate to 200 or 300, possibly even as many as 500.

"Every year there are fewer and fewer people alive who have actually used a rotary phone"
Each instance of fewer is probably several million.

So it's a very contextually dependent term indicating no set amount in and of itself.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:44 PM on June 29, 2007

If I catch 10 sardines it is a few, if I cook and eat 10 sardines it is a lot. I would think a few is usually more than two but less than ten with exceptions like having a few people over for a party.
posted by Iron Rat at 10:48 PM on June 29, 2007

[few] = lamda*x*(not(large^C(abs(x))))

Cite. (Paper is primarily dedicated to distinguishing usage of "few" from "a few", but defining "few" is considered a necessary prerequisite. Apologies for the low-tech rendering of the relevant formula ((36b) in section 4.1).
posted by ormondsacker at 10:54 PM on June 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

Usually three, but occasionally four.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:28 PM on June 29, 2007

"Was he drunk?"
Anywhere from 2 to 7.

Where I live understatement is a common form of humour, and appropriately intoned, "a few" might be understood to mean a very large number indeed. If I had a few beers last night, that might mean 17.

In normal usage it is always a relative quantity. And a couple is always two.

To the person who recommended a dictionary: meaning varies by time, geography, social standing, dialect, and so on. The dictionary gives you the meaning in standard usage, but there are many other usages,
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:37 PM on June 29, 2007

That's a really interesting point made above about it possibly varying regionally. Likewise, growing up in Southern California I always thought that a few was 2-5.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:41 PM on June 29, 2007

I think a few is three or four, never two or five. Two = a couple, five = some.
posted by slightlybewildered at 11:48 PM on June 29, 2007

a few more answers, and can we be done?
posted by The Deej at 11:59 PM on June 29, 2007

3-5, usually 3.
posted by parallax7d at 12:03 AM on June 30, 2007

Don't forget that if "few" is preceded by "quite a," you have to multiply by at least three -- possibly four or more, but at least three. An example: "Quite a few people are irked by chatfilter."
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:11 AM on June 30, 2007

"Many are called, but three are chosen?" Does that make any sense at all?

Also note that if I have fewer Xs than you, it simply means my collection of Xs is smaller in number than yours. If you had exactly three apples and I had only one, I would still be said to have fewer apples than you. I'm not sure how this usage could be reconciled with the view that few means "exactly three."

Regardless, next time you say you're only going to take a "few" cookies (or whatever it was that you did to irk Mrs. 71), try to limit yourself to three. For the good of us all.
posted by aparrish at 12:19 AM on June 30, 2007

When I'd just first moved out on my own, I went with some co-workers to a pizza-by-the-slice place for lunch. "Just give me a couple pepperoni," I said when it was my turn to order. As I ate my two slices, my co-worker asked "how did you know she would only give you two?" At my confusion, he elaborated, "She might have given you three."

The mind boggles.

Couple = 2
Few = 3-5 (not "usually" 3, sheesh, what is wrong with you people?)
Several = 6-11
Some = any number at all but more likely refers to bulk items ("some cheese")
posted by kindall at 12:19 AM on June 30, 2007

Well, if you're talking about something outside the context of a larger group, it's at least three, maybe as many as five. Probably not more than that, though.

But if it is in the context of a larger group, it can be more--as long as it's relatively small. Example:

Only a few grains of sand left in the top part of the hourglass--could be three, ten, twenty--who knows? What matters is that it's a comparatively small amount.

I find the sardine example sort of compelling, though... maybe the context is how many you could have caught?
posted by Many bubbles at 12:57 AM on June 30, 2007

posted by davar at 2:04 AM on June 30, 2007

Can't you and the Ms. just look this up? Few can be used as a noun or an adjective, and has more than one meaning.

So what's the disagreement? Did you tell Ms. 71 you would be home in a few hours? Have there been a few disagreements like this?
posted by yohko at 5:51 AM on June 30, 2007

A couple is what I use to say 3 or 4 when I don't want to lie but still want the other person to think it was less.
Example: "Yes mom, I only had a couple beers."

A few in that same context would be 3-5, but in general it's less than a bunch but more than a couple.
posted by snoogles at 7:23 AM on June 30, 2007

A couple is two. Only two. Any other use is wrong or evasive. (Three? four? more? not unless you're fucking around.)

A few (indefinite article + "few") is a small, indefinite number definitely greater than two and usually greater than three or four. (If it's only three or four, just say the number. Save a few for cases in which an instant count at a glance might be difficult.)

A few emphasizes how low the count or proportion is in part because few (zero article + "few") means not very many or not enough. You would say only a few but less often say only some and never only several, because some could be, several implies, a larger number.

one < two <= a couple < few < a few < some < several ...
posted by pracowity at 8:21 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, I used to think that several=seven. Probably because they sounded like the same word.
posted by jpdoane at 8:22 AM on June 30, 2007

A few is a random variable, normally distributed with a mean of 3 and a standard deviation of about 0.55 thereabouts.
posted by msittig at 9:37 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

If few referred to a specific amount, it'd probably be in the dictionary. It's not, so few is indefinite.
posted by roomwithaview at 9:57 AM on June 30, 2007

When I asked my mom for cookies when I was a little kid, "a few" always meant three. That standard has served me well since.
posted by marxchivist at 11:04 AM on June 30, 2007

Three well-known titles:

Three Good Men
A Few Men And A Baby
Star Wars Episode A Few
A Few Kings
A Few Days Of The Condor
A Few Musketeers
A Few Amigos
A Few Little Pigs
A Few Stooges
For Three Dollars More

I lost a lot of money once playing A Few Card Monte.
But then a genie granted me a few wishes, so I knew I'd be ok.

My s.o. and I met some new people. When they asked if we were a couple, I laughed and said "no, you idiot, there are only two of us. A couple means three." When one of them asked if we'd be interested in a fewsome, all I said was "no." You see, I'm a man of three words.
posted by The World Famous at 11:52 AM on June 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

To the person who recommended a dictionary: meaning varies by time, geography, social standing, dialect, and so on. The dictionary gives you the meaning in standard usage, but there are many other usages.

No, most dictionaries don't give a monolothic "standard usage." Dictionaries tend to be very liberal in giving a variety of possible meanings that different people might use. Most people in this thread are giving the dictionary definition, which is correct.

The main answer that's being given here that's not in the dictionary is "exactly 3," which, I'm sorry, is just incorrect. I'm sure that even those people do not actually interpret "I'll be there in a few minutes" to mean "I'll be there in exactly three minutes," or "I've only taken the subway a few times" to mean "There have been exactly three occasions on which I've taken the subway."
posted by jejune at 12:17 PM on June 30, 2007

Generally understood to mean at least three. It's grammatical usage indicates that the number isn't necessarily defined or known (otherwise you'd just say "three", wouldn't you?).

In fact, someone who uses "few" in a sentence almost always does so to indicate that the exact number is a bit "fuzzy" or doesn't really matter.
posted by lubujackson at 1:29 PM on June 30, 2007

I am with jamaro. I too am from SoCal, but a couple is only two to me.
posted by dame at 2:15 PM on June 30, 2007

I'm sure that even those people do not actually interpret "I'll be there in a few minutes" to mean "I'll be there in exactly three minutes," or "I've only taken the subway a few times" to mean "There have been exactly three occasions on which I've taken the subway."

You may be sure but you're wrong. I know a "few=3" person and they would think few=3 in both the above examples. Yeah, maybe the person shows up after 5 minutes but thats not a fault of usage but laziness, just as if someone says "a couple minutes" but shows up after 5. Likewise "I've been to Disneyland a few times" means 3 times.

Saying if they mean 3 then they should say 3 is like saying if they mean 2 they should never say "couple." Don't get me wrong, I agree with most people in this thread too, but these particular objections that people are raising are, well, lame.
posted by vacapinta at 2:46 PM on June 30, 2007

Oh and to play devil's advocate, if few is loosely defined then what's the meaning of the phrase "more than a few" as in "Oh yeah, I've been there more than a few times..."?
posted by vacapinta at 2:54 PM on June 30, 2007

More than a few means a lot.
posted by The World Famous at 2:57 PM on June 30, 2007

Previously on metafilter.

Etymologically speaking, few means "small" and I believe it can be more or less than three.

The churchill quote (above) tends away from the three theory.
Plus there's that film "For three dollars more".
posted by seanyboy at 3:01 PM on June 30, 2007

To me "a few" is more than 2 ("a couple"), but a small amount.

You could never declare bankruptcy "a few" times because more than 2 is still a lot.

But you could order a plate of "a few" beans, and get a good sized, if smallish, portion.

A descriptive linguist of my acquaintance would no doubt tell you "It means what both Mr. and Mrs. 71 understand ot to mean."
posted by rossmik at 3:15 PM on June 30, 2007

understand it to mean, rather
posted by rossmik at 3:18 PM on June 30, 2007

"One, two three, many. Many-one, many-two, many-three, many-many. Many-many-one, many-many-two, many-many-three, Lots."
(From a description of trollish counting by Terry Pratchett)
posted by agentofselection at 5:45 PM on June 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

It depends on the items in question, surely? A few raspberries could be anything up to ten, a few monkeys could be between three and six.

Whatever, you're right, Ms. 71 is wrong.
posted by jack_mo at 8:20 PM on June 30, 2007

i once saw a sign in a fast food restaurant about how catsup should be distributed based on terminology. it went like this:

a couple 2
a few 3
several 4
many/lots 5

as a person who likes lots of catsup, this type of interpretation has proved very frustrating to me (i think it errs on the low side, except for couple). to me few is most likely to be 3 or 4, though could also be 2-5 or even 6 depending on the situation. several is somewhat more, probably starting with 4 but going significantly higher (partly because several can be used to emphasize how many, rather than how few of something there are). and constructions like so few and fewer change the context entirely-- a number can easily be fewer, or possibly even few, without being a few.
posted by lgyre at 8:58 PM on June 30, 2007

If you're Julie Andrews, a few is fourteen or fifteen, depending on whether snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes count as two different things.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 9:44 PM on June 30, 2007

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Henry's speech is way more impressive when you consider that he's taking on the whole French army with 3 (maybe five) soldiers.
posted by bonehead at 10:55 AM on July 1, 2007

The thing about 'a few' being always three in the mind of some people is that they should accept there are more than a few people who don't think that. Likewise, those of us who accept 'few' to be a relative term will just have to accept that when others hear 'few' they think 'three'. Nothing wrong with thinking that few=three.

But I think I'm better than those who think few=three because if I ask for a few of something and get three I'll be not think twice about it while if you ask me for a few and get as many as six you'll probably be upset that you got more than a few. Either way, I win.
posted by Green With You at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Clearly this argument can get heated and this is why we can no longer discuss this at home.
posted by josher71 at 12:47 PM on July 1, 2007

My step father is German and my girlfriend is Spanish, and though they both speak English better than I do, this is one of the questions that they have both asked me. I usually respond that I would be happy to explain in a few minutes, but that I have a couple things I need to finish up first.
posted by Nothing at 8:15 PM on July 1, 2007

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