One of our listeners recently wrote in, wondering about the proper way to describe quantities.
She said her sixth-grade English teacher had taught her that “a few” means one or two, and that “several” means three or more.
However, following this rule, she sent a work colleague into a panic. She told him that a project would ready in “a few days.” She meant it would be done in a day or two. But he interpreted it, in her words, as an “ambiguous brush-off.” He assumed she was saying she wouldn’t meet her deadline.
After they sorted out the confusion, he suggested that if she really meant one or two days, she should have said “in a couple of days,” not “in a few.”
He thought that “a couple” meant a small number of things—like, no more than five. But that “a few” could mean anything from three to 10.
At this point in the conversation, they realized their opinions were far apart, and they decided to write to Grammar Girl for help.
Thank you for the vote of confidence.
But unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to this question.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary,
- “Few” means consisting of a small number. But what “a small number” is, isn’t clear.
- “Several” means an indefinite number—more than two and fewer than many. The “more than two” part is helpful, but how many things are in “many”?
- “Couple” is listed as meaning “two.” But to confuse matters, “a couple” is also shown as being a synonym of “a few.”
If you think about how “a couple” is used in conversation, that definition makes sense. For example, if someone asks you how many donuts you want, and you say “a couple,” you would expect to get two.
But if you’re running to get some coffee to eat with those donuts, and you say, “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” no one really expects you to be back in two minutes flat. They understand that you mean something like “I’ll be back soon.”
So here’s your quick and dirty tip: Words like “a few,” “several,” “some,” “a couple,” and “many” give a very general sense of quantity. It’s fine to use them when precision isn’t important.
When the timing or quantity is critical, specify an actual number. If you need an assignment back in two hours, say you need it in two hours, rather than “I need this back soon,” or even “I need this back in a couple of hours.” If you need six avocados to make guacamole, say “Please get me six avocados,” instead of “Get me several avocados.”
Your colleagues will appreciate the clarity, and you’ll get exactly what you need. That’s a specific—not a general—win-win for everyone.