by Liz Walter
In 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 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.
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.
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:
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.
a hint of garlic
a mere trace of calcium
Perhaps readers can suggest some others?