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

Posted on Categories Legal Writing, Public

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.

93 thoughts on “Commonly Confused Words: A Couple, A Few, Some, Several, or Many?”

  1. 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.

      1. Maybe the father was describing what he meant when he says, “I’ll be home in a few minutes.” He means he’ll be home in 3-26 minutes but not a full half-hour. 🙂

      2. A few means a small amount out of the whole amount. If I have 30 balls and 26 are white then many or most are white. If Have 300 balls and 26 are white while the remaining 249 are black then 26 is only a few.

      3. Few is up to 5 or at the most 6 but if you move ahead of 5 or 6 you cannot say few, it falls under some and again when you move to 15 or 16 then say several. so few is upto 5 and some is upto 15 and beyond that you say several

    1. This kind of thing really sucks in retail. People say things like “I want a few shots of fireball.” How much is a few? The outstanding part is people get mad when you ask that.

  2. 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.

    1. I know this is an older comment, but what else is regular coffee if not with cream and sugar? With neither, it’s black coffee. I don’t know if there are terms for just sugar or just cream.

      1. Regular coffee is coffee with caffeine “regular or decaf?” Black coffee is regular coffee without sugar or cream. Some people refer to coffee with cream as “with cream” or “ whitener”. Those same folks would say “with sugar” or “sweet” . All of this is dependent on the part of the country you’re in/from. Me , I drink my coffee black. When asked, I am asked “room for cream?” Where I am from you doctor your coffee yourself , it is always served black. Unless you are at a Starbucks and you order some concoction.

      2. Black is regular. It’s regular because you haven’t added anything to it. If you add cream/milk it becomes white coffee.

      3. I definitely agree with Lori for the most part (only because some of the names I didn’t grow up with/don’t hear where I live in central Ohio). I always considered black coffee to mean no sugar or cream until I had a customer order a black coffee and assume I knew that it would have sugar in it. Ahhh. While that was not how I interpreted it I understood it if we are only talking about color. I’ve waited tables in many restaurants and a couple of coffee shops and only once did I ever have it ordered with this in mind. I love language variation. Fascinating although sometimes frustrating.

      4. When I moved from the midwest to Boston, I always loved being able to order coffee “sweet and light”, lots of cream and sugar. There was no easy way to say that in the midwest.

      5. Not with cream particularly, but milk and 2 sugars in Australia at least is, Standard Nato, or two n’ moo.

    2. In NJ if you order “ regular” it comes with cream and sugar, black coffee is plain coffee with nothing in it and if you want decaf you specify either “decaf regular” if you want cream and sugar and “decaf black” or just “decaf” if you prefer without. It’s definitely a regional thing.

  3. 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”.

    1. Leave it to the English to have several words all mean the same as a few but not less than a couple.

  4. 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.

    1. Barton,
      My husband and two boys were sitting at Taco Bell in Palm Bay, Florida, hashing out this argument at length. I pulled out my trusty smart phone and we began to whittle down our disagreement. Then, by a stroke of good fortune we came across your story. We want you to know that we have decided to accept your definitions due to the fell circumstances in which they were decided.
      Blessings and “many” thanks.

      1. To make this sentence more effective, it would read as thus: I saw a group of cats in an alley on the hunt for food.

  5. 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. 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.

  7. A couple is 2.

    A few is 3 or 4.

    Five is 5, because it’s a round number. It’s five. If you mean 3, 4, 6, 7, etc. you don’t mean five. If you mean 5 you’d say five.

    Several is 6, 7, 8, or 9. Because ten is 10. It’s two 5’s. A ten. Ten-spot.

    Some is 3 to 175.

    1. Your theory doesn’t hold up. If you’re going to call 5 “5” because it’s 5, then you should call every other number it’s own value, rather than giving it an arbitrary value.

  8. The only thing I can say for sure is a couple means two. My grade school teacher stated, “When you refer to a lovely couple, there are not three people involved, only two!” t.eske age 60

  9. A “couple” means 2
    A “Few” means 3 to 6
    “Several” means 7 or more

    That is what I was thought in grade school.

    1. This is closest to my belief, but I was taught that a couple was 2 or 3, no specifically either. This was because why would you call 2 a couple? You’d surely just call it 2.

      A “couple” was meant to give a vague approximation, rather than a specific number – just like a “few” has a range, as does “several” or “some” or “many”.

      I agree that with a specific set of humans, a couple is a pairing of two people, but when giving non-specific numeric values, a couple was always 2 or 3 – “a couple of people in the crowd got knocked over” – not specifically 2, but somewhere around that many.

      1. I would say if a couple people got knocked down it was 2 and if you meant more than 2 people got knocked down, you are saying the wrong word. A couple meaning 2 just makes sense. I was taught a few meant 3 or more but not a lot. I heard my Granddaughter tell a story and she said a couple. She told it again and it was a 3 or 4. I asked how many 2 or more? She said idk a couple. I said a couple is 2, she said well more than two but I am not sure, I said if your sure it was more than 2 but not many use a few. One of the many things I do that makes me realize I have turned into my mother.

  10. I just had a discussion about this and after looking up what those words really mean I was confused. My thought (all these long years) is that 2 is a couple, a few is 3 and several meant 7 or more (it seemed to me the first 4 letters seve gave it away). Everything else was a specific number.

  11. a thing is just one thing
    and a couple things is two
    and if you have three things
    then you say you have a few

    and you start to say there’s several
    after you have four
    and keep on saying several
    even after you have more

    but at some point you’ll have many
    and that’s the word to choose
    when you have so many things
    that there’s no other word to use

  12. A number (a large number!) of years ago, Infoworld published a table that had all of these things, and more, listed in an easy-to-reference way. It was very tongue-in-cheek, but I have been unable to locate it or any mention of it in recent years. It had entries like the ones in this thread, but also things like Many, Most, All (represented as varying percentages), etc. I wish I could resurrect it from wherever it went!

  13. Well, I often tell my wife I am going to the pub for a “couple” of pints and this is usually equating to 5 or 6.

  14. Best analogy I’ve read yet.
    (My husband wanted to be a diver in USN. He was a water bug (surfer & swim teams.) Can’t remember exactly what came of it, I think was something to do with his leiutenet or commander holding him back can’t remember the reason.

  15. The dictionary defines Several as more than two but not many.
    a number of, a few, not very many, a handful of, a small group of.

    I’d take that to mean more than 2 less than 10.

    Several, few, handful, bunch and some.
    These have no numerical significance.
    If you want to say an exact amount you would use the number.

  16. I’ve always considered “some” of these terms to be an approximate percentage of the total potential number or an absolute approximation within the specific context, with the exception of single and couple.

    – A few could mean 3 or 4 OR approximtetly 20-40% of the total (a few [6] of the 20 council members were in attendance. A few in this context being a subjective estimate.
    – Some represents an unknown amount that I approximately approximate the percentage to be greater than 20%, but less than 60%, but more than a couple.
    – Several could be grater than 60%
    – Many is the majority, say greater than 75%, where the estimator is unsure of the capacity. e.g. 13 of a total of, hmm, 15 to 25 total in the population?

  17. The usage I’ve always known is a couple is probably 2 but could possibly be 3, a few is probably 3 but could possibly 4. The argument I’ve always heard is that if 2 and only two was meant with dead certainty, the word “pair”or “two” would have been used.

    ‘The only thing I can say for sure is a couple means two. My grade school teacher stated, “When you refer to a lovely couple, there are not three people involved, only two!” t.eske age 60’

    That line was probably a lot more clever in the 70s, this upcoming generation is shockingly polyamorous. I would never do it, nor do I get it, but between college and hanging out with a large orchestra, the number of ‘couples’ that I later found out were more than 2 is numbering at more than a few.

    To each their own.

    1. Those “couples” are known as throuples. If the throuple has 4 partners, it is a quad. More than that it can be a harem if a singular person has the ultimate say in the relationship, or a poly family if there is a core family, but others can be introduced on a come and go basis as agreed on by the family.

  18. 1 = single
    2 = couple
    3 = few
    4 = some
    5 = handful
    6 = group
    7 = several
    8-50 = many
    51 – 100 = lots
    101-200 = horde
    201 – 500 = legion
    501+ = myriad

    1. myriad = 10,000 [archaic]; innumerable; a very great number of.

      BTW, the word “myriad” is misused by myriad English speakers. It is more correct to say, “There were myriad people financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” than saying, “There were *a* myriad *of* people financially affected…”

      The formula for remembering the correct usage of “myriad” is simple. Substitute “innumerable” for “myriad” and see which makes sense. “There were innumerable people affected,” or “There were *an* innumerable *of* people affected.”

    2. This is EXACTLY what I was taught! It actually bothers me that this doesn’t seem to be a known thing, and is used so loosely that when you use it correctly it is largely misinterpreted. I’ve come to the point that when I start a new job/relationship (friend or otherwise) at some point I clarify the definition so that we can be on the same page. It’s lovely to find someone who knows and corroborates what I’ve been taught.

  19. I’m from Wisconsin and I often drank from bubblers as a child.

    Fountains are a source of parking meter coins. ; )

    Does Wisconsin still have “stop-and-go lights”?

    We have traffic signals in Texas.

  20. Governor Murphy of NJ just said yesterday that we are still several weeks away from opening up our economy.

  21. Sorry, no. ‘A few’, ‘Several’ and ‘Some’ are interchangeable and are indeterminate, though they are more than two but are not large amounts. ‘Some’ also works for quantities of something, such as ‘some lemonade’ or ‘some rice’.

  22. Whileas in Korea in Korean English education throughout the country–or at least the southern half, this topic is formally covered. This is because it’s within what’s examined in CSAT, which is like the Korean version of SAT but governed and enforced by the government as the primary standard for universities to line applicants up (with much better quality questions but still with horrible output as a primary standard of anything).

    In particular, that “a few” and “few” are different concepts is a very common question in CSAT. It’s taught and examined that while “few” is the antonym of “a lot”, “a few” is similar in meaning with “a lot”. I’ve even heard a few of “‘a few’ is equivalent to ‘some’ for countable stuff, okay? It sounds nuts, and English is nuts. Don’t complain.”

    They teach it as such in a very deterministic way, and although I’m very much against it, I believe they have a point. As can be observed in some use cases, these words don’t have determined values: rather, they have a dynamic range of tendencies for some English speakers. Since South Korea teaches exclusively Californian English as the only “right” English, I’m guessing that such terms have vaguer meaning in the east coast.

    1. I’ve often heard people combine couple and few into a single quantity: for example, at a hardware store, “ would that be can I get a couple few paintbrushes?”
      So would that be 2, 3, or 6? Perhaps it would be 2 cubed (8), or 3 squared (9)?
      I loved the comment from Boston, n MA. In regional dialects, my kids love to hear our friend from NJ say “caw- free” with the caw emphasized.

  23. The difference between a few, and several is that several is indicative of a number, with numerous suggestions above being appropriate, but a few indicates a percentage. A few bad apples in a barrel might indicate 10 or 20, but a few bad eggs in a dozen might be two or three.

  24. This is exactly right. If a couple were a synonym for two, it would be a pointless word, the whole point of it being to include more than just 2 (unless you are talking about two things that are always joined together, like 2 people in a close relationship) . Of course the right answer to these questions is always (i) it depends where you are, as local customs differ, and (ii) the context is also important. But I think these words are not synonyms for 2 and 3 and a bit more than 3, they are ranges that are used to purposely introduce some uncertainty, either because the speaker doesn’t know the exact number or wants to maintain some flexibility or ambiguity. And the reason we have these debates about ‘a couple’, ‘a few’, and ‘several’ is that we don’t all agree on exactly where the ranges are, in our own use or in common usage around us.

    If someone says they have a couple of problems, it usually doesn’t mean just two – they probably have 3 or 4, and they are using the word ‘couple’ to downplay it a bit. If you have a couple of friends over for dinner, it may be 2, but it may be 3 (with covid, you’re downplaying that one, too.) On the other hand, if you had a few friends over, it really can’t be just 2! So who came? Tina and Jane. Is that all? Yeah. Oh, I thought you said a few.

    For things that are less easily counted (like time) , the boundaries are fuzzier, because there’s the additional imprecision from the measurement. I’ll be arriving in a few minutes could easily cover 10-15 minutes, but 20 would be stretching it. But if you asked your Dad if you could have a few friends over to watch the game, he would not be happy when 15 friends showed up. In that context, even ‘several friends’ could probably not get you past 10.

  25. An employee text me this morning to say they were running a few minutes late. I can now clarify that “a few” is actually 20.

  26. If I ask for a couple of French fries or a couple of M&Ms and someone gave me 2 I would be pissed.

    1. Y’all know what to send Matt for April Fool’s Day next year. Slap ’em on a postcard and run!

  27. Let’s not overlook that:
    a pair is 2 (a couple)
    a brace (e.g. of birds/pheasants) is 2
    half a dozen is 6
    a dozen is 12
    a baker’s dozen is 13 (12 plus 1 spare)
    Then we have:
    (suffix) uni- (1)
    (of babies) twins; triplets; quadruplets (quads); etc.
    (in music) solo; duo; trio; quartet; quintet, etc.
    (of wheels) bicycle; tricycle
    (of feet) monopod (1); tripod (3)

  28. I don’t remember too much from school. I was always watching a few squirrels or some birds out the window, or having several words with Mark who sat next to the window. I do remember that two is correct for a couple because that was how many erasers would come zinging my way to bring me back to attention.

  29. In my experience not even “a couple” is interpreted by everyone to mean the same thing. It’s usually thought to mean “two”, but not always.

  30. I came across this thread because I was trying to distinguish between few and multiples.

    The way I was taught in school is that a couple is subjective and can mean 2 or more but is based on the power of twos.

    For instance if you say a couple of people came over it usually means 2 sets of couples.

    And when referring to a few is means at least between 4 and 6 but less than 7.

  31. My family always said “few” meant 8. The New Testament in the Bible speaks of “a few” souls being saved from the flood. If you go back and count them, there were 8.

  32. The value of couple, few, some, several, and many was taught to me in grammar school which was in the 1940s. I taught 6th grade in the 1960s and the definition of each of these words then could be found in a dictionary. Few is 3, some is 4, 5, or 6, several is 7, 8, or 9, and many means 10 or more.

    As you most likely know, the meaning of words can change over time. Some for a good reason and others because lexicographers change or update the meaning of words due to widespread ignorant usage which explains, to some degree, why the mathematical meaning of the words above are not known today. An example of a definition change for a good reason is that of the word acre. Originally, it was defined as the amount of land two oxen could plow in a day. Obviously, it would be difficult to sell an acre of land today using that definition.

  33. A Couple is 2 (non-negotiable).

    A Few is typically, usually, likely, should be and Most Importantly can only be 3 {Three}. However, when Confusion is involved, and Confucius can be persistent especially when speaking of numbers in the mid-hundreds into millions, and most often when speaking about Money and/sales; then and only then “A Few” couple be a relatively large sum of count number. An example if a plane carrying 750 passengers and it crashed on a runway during takeoff, if 9 people were injured thats 1.2% of the passengers therefore only a few passengers are hurt.

    Several is also relative to whatever sum or subject you must be talking about. It’s usual to use it when dealing with people example: of the 200 employees, several of them filed suits against their employer for lack of payments, vacations being hijacked due to call-offs and the companies profit interests, several (80) employees quit their Jobs. After interviews with some of the 80 employees, many said they’d return to work under the conditions that the company would pay them A minimum of $25/hr, 2 paid Vacations/year, better insurance for them and their families, and less harassment on the job sites, all of which must be in writing and signed by the employer.

  34. I’m Japanese and not a native English speaker but have a different understanding of “a couple”.
    In my experience, when American says “I’ll get it done in a couple of days.”, it has never been finished within two days but three to 7 days. My understanding is that American uses “a couple” when he/she does not want to state exact number “two” but something near to two but maybe longer. So my understanding of “a couple of days” is “If you are lucky, it may be two days, though usually it takes more than two days.”

  35. INCORRECT: 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.

    CORRECT: A couple as a standalone noun means two, yes, but when you refer to “a couple of” options, no. It “might” be two, but the idea is that there is some vagueness. What’s definite is that there is a small subset, and it’s possibly more than two. Otherwise, you would just say two or the number of options you do have.

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