Commonly Confused Words: A Couple, A Few, Some, Several, or Many?

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Category: Legal Writing, Public
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In three previous posts (here, here, and here), I’ve addressed some commonly confused words and how to choose the one that expresses what you really mean. Talking about those posts with some friends prompted this one: what’s the difference between a couple, few, some, several, or many? For example, if someone tells you have a few options, how many do you have? Three? Four? More?

 

A couple: Everyone seems to agree that “a couple” means two. If you have a couple of options, you can safely assume that you will have to choose between A and B, and only A and B.

 

A Few: Here’s where things tend to get confusing. I’ve asked different people how many they thought the words “a few” referred to. Their answers varied. Some insisted “a few” meant three and only three. Some said it meant three or four. Or maybe more. The answer is that there is no hard-and-fast answer. What “a few” means to me might be different than what “a few” means to you. So, if you tell someone you’ll be there “in a few minutes,” the two of you might understand that to mean, say, less than five minutes, but one of you might mean something slightly longer. And someone who wants to borrow “a few dollars” from you may really only want three or four bucks. But maybe not.

 

As well, depending on the context, “few” (without the “a” preceding it) could mean little to none. For example, maybe you have few options.

 

Some/Several: Again, there is no hard-and-fast rule here. “Some” might be the same as “a few” or it might be more, inching up to “several.” You might have “several dollars” in your pocket, or you might have “some cash” in your wallet, and those amounts could vary considerably in both your mind and your listener’s/reader’s minds.

 

Many: It seems generally accepted, though, that “many,” while having no precise number attached to it, is the greatest in quantity in this list. You might many choices, and that suggests far more than choosing between solely A, B, and C.

 

So, the bottom line seems to be this: “a couple” is typically interpreted with some precision to mean “two.” “Many” is the most, but an indeterminate amount. If you’re striving for precision, you might want to specifically list a number. For example, there are five reasons why the trial court decision must be overturned. That’s pretty clear. However, if you want some wiggle room, you can use “a few,” “some,” or “several,” but realize you and your listener or reader may have different understandings of what those terms mean.

 

For more on this topic, see here.

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6 Responses to “Commonly Confused Words: A Couple, A Few, Some, Several, or Many?”

  1. John Butler Says:

    The father of friends of mine arrived home after a long day at work just in time to settle an argument we were having: How many is a few?

    With a straight face, he said from three to 26.

  2. Bill Bleakley Says:

    I grew up in the Boston, MA area and in that area a few was perhaps seven. Of course in that area a cup of regular coffee came with sugar and cream already in it. You also worshed your cahh and paahked in Haaarvud Yahd, and rooted for the Redsawks.

  3. Preston Cameron Says:

    A couple means two.
    A few means a small number. (“I have fewer than you”/”they are few and far between”)
    Several, according to its dictionary definition means “more than two but not many”, so a few but not a couple.
    And some, according to the dictionary means “an unspecified amount or number”.

  4. Barton Bollfrass Says:

    When I was a Navy Diver in the early 90’s, my instructor asked my class that question while treading water. 1hour later we had the answer. The order goes… (1)single, (2)couple, (3)few, (4)some, (5)group, (6)bunch, (7)several, (8+)many.

  5. Morrey Lester Says:

    The distinction in definitions appear to be related to the specific, region or locality you attended elementary school in.
    The words were taught this way. A couple was 2. A few was 3 to 4. Several was considered a vague term with 4 to 8 being the accepted meaning. A dozen was 12. 13 or 14 at a farmers market. It could be combined with couple, few, and several dozen to give a general estimate. Some and a group as well as a bunch or many could only be defined in the contest used with a bunch and many considered more.
    We all know a bubbler and not a fountain is the proper term for the fixture or unit, usually in a public area, you get a drink of water from. A fountain is a place you throw coins in…. Yes, I live in Wisconsin.

  6. Marcia Taylor Says:

    In my studies to teach English as a Second Language, we were instructed to explain those terms as: a couple is 2, a few is 3 or 4, several is 5 or 6 and many is more than that.

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