a few or several

Few Several.jpg

English has a few words and phrases which are vague indicators of number.  Or is it several words and phrases? Because these expressions are vague, we can end up having very different interpretations of what is meant.

 OED defines a few as a small number.  I would like to say a few words. I will be away for a few weeks. There are a few bad apples means to me that there are two or three.

On the other hand, a good few or a fair few or quite a few means ‘quite a lot’.

Several, by comparison with a few, is a reasonable number − six, seven, eight, even nine or ten. Definitely more than a few but less than many by a considerable margin.  I’m not sure where many starts but possibly over twenty?

Of course a fewseveral and many are relative terms and so the actual numbers can change depending on what the total group number is. If the group is about twenty then a few could be two or three, several could be six to twelve, and many could be over sixteen.

But if the group numbers a thousand, then a few might be about fifty, several might be a up to a hundred, and many might be several hundreds.

I find myself struck by a difference in my usage of several and that of others. It seems to me that several is shrinking and becoming a synonym of a few. It is this use of several to mean ‘one or two’ that is causing the problem.

There are other sets of words which have vague and overlapping meanings.

For a discussion of expressions of probability see the following: http://www.visualcapitalist.com/measuring-perceptions-of-uncertainty/

Sue ButlerComment