“Few” vs. “Couple” vs. “Several”: How Much Do They Really Mean?

Multi-ethnic group of people talking in an office.

Every day, without thinking about it, we all refer to quantities without specifying a number. Most commonly, we do this by using terms like a few, a couple, and several. A lot of people have strong opinions about what each of these terms means—and what it doesn’t.

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences, the overlap, and dig into these questions and a few (or several) more, including:

  • How many is few?
  • What’s the difference between few and a few?
  • How many is a couple?
  • What’s the difference between a couple and a few?
  • How many is several?

Quick summary

A couple most strictly means two, but it’s often used casually to mean much the same thing as a few, which commonly means around two, three, or four—it can be relative to the situation and the size of the numbers under discussion. For example, you might say only a few people came when it was 12 but 50 were invited. Several most commonly means more than two, but fewer than many. Depending on the context, the meanings of couple, few, and several, can overlap.

How many is a few?

A few is generally considered to mean between two and several. Some people use a few to mean around three, but this is not a universal interpretation. Its meaning is highly relative to the context—it often depends on what’s being discussed, especially the scale and expectations.

When you say you ate a few of something, such as potato chips or candies, you might mean you ate three or four, but you could also mean you had, say, 10 or a small handful—especially if they’re small or you’d normally eat more. There are many other situations in which the same number would be considered many or a lot, especially if it’s considered more than normal.

few vs. a few

Even though they are both used to refer to a small but nonspecific quantity—and in some situations may even indicate the same quantity—the terms a few and few are subtly different.

Sometimes, a few is used to point out that there are some, as opposed to none, as in Dave said we didn’t get any applications, but there are a few. You could also say Dave said we didn’t get any applications, but there are some.

In contrast, few, as in Few are suited for this kind of work or There are very few positions available, emphasizes the limitedness of the quantity. Few emphasizes the low quantity and lack of items.

Here are three sentences (and their interpretations) that illustrate the potential difference in meaning between few, a few, and only a few:

  • A few people attended. (This simply indicates the approximate number of people who attended).
  • Few people attended. (This emphasizes that attendance was low.)
  • Only a few people attended. (This emphasizes that attendance was low—and perhaps lower than expected or desired.)

Would you eat a few donuts … or doughnuts?

How many is a couple?

In its strictest sense, the phrase a couple means two. It is commonly followed by of, as in I have a couple of errands to run or They made a couple of mistakes. Sometimes, it’s used without of, which is considered even more informal, as in a couple miles or a couple books. A couple more is also used frequently and informally: a couple more cookies and a couple more minutes.

It’s very common for a couple to be used casually to mean around two, or three, or … in other words, it’s often used interchangeably with a few.

a couple vs. a few

In casual use, a couple and a few are often used interchangeably to refer to a low but nonspecific number of things. A couple is often more strictly interpreted as two or at least around two—maybe three or four, depending on the context.

It’s possible that some people say a couple when they mean two or even three but then switch to a few when they mean three or four or more. But there’s no “correct” definition—everyone’s use differs without the meaning being misinterpreted too much.

Of the two, a few is the more flexible. Most people would probably agree that even though a few and a couple are commonly used interchangeably, a few more commonly refers to higher quantities than a couple does. A couple is typically a small number, while a few can range higher depending on the context, scale, and expectations of what’s being discussed.

How many is several?

When it comes to several, well, there are going to be several answers. Generally speaking, several is used to refer to quantities above two or so but not so much that it’s a lot or many. Perhaps the most common interpretation or intended sense of several is around three to five, but this can vary greatly depending on the context. If the numbers under discussion are particularly large, then the exact meaning of several can expand. For example, several people could mean eight or nine or even more in a crowd of hundreds, but four or five in a crowd of 10.

several vs. few

Due to their malleable, nonspecific nature, several and a few can certainly overlap. Obviously, a few is on the low end, with several higher, so they overlap somewhere in the middle. For example, four cats could be several or a few, depending on the situation, expectations, or other factors.

Here are some examples of how several vs. few are used interchangeably.

  • My sister called several minutes ago.
  • My sister called a few minutes ago.

Examples of few, couple, and several used in a sentence

Here are some examples of how a few, few, couple, and several are used in real-life contexts.

  • I like a few olives on my salad.
  • Few people have seen the new house yet, but we did invite a few close friends over when we moved in.
  • I ate a couple of cookies from the jar.
  • I need a few good ideas—I’d like everyone to submit a couple of suggestions.
  • We need to interview a few more candidates if we hope to have several on the shortlist.

What about when dealing with many things? Is it "a lot," "alot," or "allot"?

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