Scarce, scant and sparse (Ways of saying ‘not enough’)

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

a young woman seen from behind looking at empty supermarket shelves, illustrating the concept of not having enough of something
ArtMarie / E+ / Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

I recently wrote a post on expressions that we use to convey that there is enough of something. Today I’m looking at the opposite – the way we talk about too little or too few of something.

Let’s start with the very frequent word lack, which is both a noun and a verb. We also use the adjective lacking, either saying that something valuable ‘is lacking’, or that someone or something ‘is lacking in’ a valuable quality:

I was shocked at the lack of knowledge.

Unfortunately, they lack sufficient training.

His management skills, however, were sadly lacking.

I don’t think she’s lacking in confidence.

Staying with adjectives, something that is scarce is difficult to find or get, while something that is sparse is small in numbers or amount, often spread over a large area:

Worryingly, water is becoming increasingly scarce in the region.

Both teams are used to playing before sparse crowds. / The soil is poor and vegetation is sparse.

The adjective scant means ‘very little and not enough’. It’s often used with abstract nouns such as ‘attention’, ‘reward’ and ‘comfort’. It goes before the noun:

Surprisingly, the affair received scant attention in the press. / Her comments will offer scant comfort to people who’ve lost all their savings.

A (UK) meagre / (US) meager amount of something is too small and is less than needed:

It was hard to survive on their meagre rations./ She had to do something to supplement her meager wages.

There are various useful nouns in this area. A situation in which there is not enough of something is often referred to as a shortage. A more formal way of saying this is the noun dearth:

There’s a desperate shortage of science teachers.

This whole region now faces a dearth of skilled workers.

Another formal noun for this is paucity. The phrase ‘paucity of’ often comes before uncountable nouns:

It has exposed the paucity of talent within the government. / It’s the paucity of imagination that is so shocking.

The nouns shortfall and deficit refer to an amount or number by which something is less than it should be. ‘Deficit’ usually refers to money:

A recent report revealed severe staffing shortfalls in the sector.

Something needs to be done to address the worsening trade deficit.

Let’s have a look now at phrases in this area. If useful people or things are few and far between or thin on the ground, they exist only in small numbers. You can also say that they are in short supply:

Bargains these days are few and far between.

Reasonably priced hotels are thin on the ground in this part of the city.

Sadly, trained doctors were in short supply.

If something valuable such as space or time is at a premium, very little is available. In UK English, if too few things are available for the many people who want them, you might say they are like gold dust:

In an apartment of this size, space is at a premium. / Parking is at a premium in the shopping quarter.

Tickets for the event are like gold dust.

That concludes my post on ways of saying ‘not enough’. Make a note of these expressions and you will never lack alternatives for saying ‘too little’ or ‘too few’ again!

15 thoughts on “Scarce, scant and sparse (Ways of saying ‘not enough’)

  1. pr

    Such quality short write-ups are scarce which is why I get avoid reading articles which wastes my time with paragraphs beating around the bush.

    Your’s is to the point and is like gold dust.

    Thank you, Kate!

  2. Joe Kelly

    It’s refreshing not to suffer wordy half thoughts in effort to maximize advert space.
    Thank you for valuing my time. It demonstrates mutual respect.

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