Just a drop, please: talking about quantities and numbers (2)

by Liz Walter

teacupIn my last post, I looked at some common ways of talking about large numbers and amounts. In this one, I cover the opposite: small numbers and amounts.

We use a few before countable nouns and a little (which sounds slightly formal to British English speakers) before uncountable nouns:

We played a few games of tennis.

He earned a little money by painting.

We often use a few and a little before more:

We need a little more time.

There is an important difference between few or little and a few or a little:

Few people have heard of him.

There has been little improvement.

(These are rather negative statements that emphasize the small amount or number of something.)

I invited a few friends to dinner.

We’ve made a little progress.

(These are more positive statements that imply you are happy – or at least not unhappy about the number or amount.)

So, when you want to make a positive statement, don’t forget to use a:

Would you like a little rice?

Would you like little rice?

For more examples of this, click here.

Few and little are both rather formal when used on their own. In everyday speech, we are much more likely to express this negative idea of smallness in a different way. The most common is to say not many before a plural noun or not much before an uncountable noun:

I haven’t seen many lions.

She didn’t give us much food.

You can also focus on the smallness of a number or amount by using only before a few or a little (although only a little is still somewhat formal for British English speakers).

Only a few people came to the party.

There was only a little snow on the ground.

For more positive statements, we often use a (little) bit of before uncountable nouns:

I wanted a bit of peace and quiet.

 ‘Would you like milk in your coffee?’ ‘Just a little bit, please.’

In American English, a bit of is much less common than a little:

I wanted a little peace and quiet.

Of course, we can also use the words number and amount themselves, with a suitable adjective:

A tiny number of people saw the document.

He ate a small amount of food.

Finally, for more advanced learners, there are some words which are specific to certain substances, mainly food or drink. If you would like a very small amount of milk in your tea or coffee, you can say:

Just a dash/drop, please.

We also use drop for alcoholic drinks, especially spirits such as whiskey or brandy.

When talking about food, a thin slice of something such as cake or pizza is a sliver.

A: Would you like some cake? 

B: I’m quite full, but I could manage a sliver.

If an amount is so small that it is almost not there, we can use hint or trace:

a hint of garlic

a mere trace of calcium

Perhaps readers can suggest some others?

14 thoughts on “Just a drop, please: talking about quantities and numbers (2)

  1. Toblerone

    Thanks for an interesting thought or two. We seem to have plenty of small/negative words (e.g. morsel, pinch, skerrick, smidgeon, scrap, soupcon) in English but perhaps not as many for larger items? Although I did just write ‘plenty’ above and there are several alternatives – bountiful, plethora, profusion, oodles… Well I think we are in no short supply of these quantity words…

  2. Pingback: Topical lexis | ELT Infodump

  3. Thank you very much for this post. As for the readers’ suggestions, perhaps “(only) a handful of something” might be another example.

    Best regards,

  4. Tony Nguyen

    I have read the post and had deep understanding about the way to speak a small amount of something. Both with negative and positive meaning.
    In fact, there still were some strange words with me such as “hint”, “trace”, “sliver”, “dash”. I will try using its in correct circumstances. The word “drop” is used in my motherlanguage in the same way with the same meaning so that I can immediately learn it by heart.
    I would like to express my sincerely thanks to your post.
    With my best regards

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