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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