Quantifiers

Degree determiners and pronouns

The degree quantifiers many, much, few, and little function both as determiners and as substitutes for nouns and noun phrases, i.e. as pronouns. In both uses they are sensitive to the number of the noun they determine. Thus, much and little combine with or replace singular nouns, whereas many and few combine with or replace plural nouns.

(1) Did you take many pictures of the wedding?

(2) Don’t use too much butter in the cake.

(3) James made few mistakes on the test.

(4) The children showed little appreciation of her efforts.

The degree quantifiers many, much, few, and little have comparative and superlative forms. The definite article is optional with the superlative forms.

(5) James made many/more/(the) most mistakes.

(6) Mary made few/fewer/(the) fewest mistakes.

(7) Did James buy much/more/(the) most furniture?

(8) James has little/less/(the) least knowledge of Latin.

Note: Most is also used as a quantifier of proportion in which case the definite article is not used. Most students are eager to learn.

When combined with collective nouns, which (especially in BrE) may be treated as singular or plural, either the singular or the plural quantifiers may be used.

(9) How many/much staff would you need to run the store?

(10) There was too few/little staff to cover our needs.

Similarly for the comparative and superlative forms

(11) The support team might work better with fewer/less/more staff.

(12) Our department has the least/the fewest staff.

Plural measure noun phrases like ten days, two miles, twenty dollars, which may denote a period of time, a distance, a sum of money, etc., and which may then be treated as singular, combine with singular degree quantifiers in the comparative.

(13) We spent less than ten days/twenty dollars in Paris.

(14) A barrel of oil has never been worth less than twenty dollars.

Little and few are always stressed and have negative meaning, as evidenced by the use of any-pronouns.

(15) Few of the students showed any interest in literature.

(16) There was little evidence of any improvement.

When combined with the indefinite article, few and little lose their negative force and simply indicate a small number or amount. In this usage, a little and a few are seldom stressed (except for emphasis).

(17) A few of the students asked for an extra lecture on Blake.

(18) It’s nice when someone shows you a little appreciation.

It is worth noting that the difference between few and a few and between little and a little does not necessarily reflect a difference in actual numbers or amounts. Instead the choice reflects the speaker’s judgement of what counts as a high or low number or amount. Compare:

(19) There were few mistakes in your report.

(20) There were a few mistakes in your report.

Suppose there were five mistakes in the report. Then the first example suggests ‘only five’, or ‘almost none’, whereas the second is roughly equivalent to some.

The degree quantifiers many, much, few, and little may be modified by adverbs indicating degree like as, so, too, very, and others like surprisingly, which indicate speaker attitude..

(21) I have seen so/too/very/surprisingly many people lose hope.

(22) My family did not have too/very/that much money.

The pronominal use of the plural quantifying pronouns (many and few) is fairly restricted in English and should be avoided in formal writing. Normally, a head noun is understood from the context (and may be made explicit in an of-phrase).

(23) The soldiers were in shock. Many (soldiers/of them) just sat silent.

(24) Most offenders were not prosecuted. Few (offenders/of them) were handcuffed and most (offenders/of them) spent only a few hours in custody.

A Swedish perspective: Pronominal uses common in Swedish (click to expand/contract)

In Swedish, pronominal uses are more common, and occur freely with specific or generic reference. English equivalents normally have a head noun like people or things. With non-human reference, a lot is often used in informal English without a following of-phrase.

(1a) Många tror att FN kommer att misslyckas att skapa fred.

(1b) Many people believe that the UN will fail to make peace.

(2a) De flesta har nog inte hört talas om staden Nogood.

(2b) Most people probably have not heard of the town of Nogood.

(3a) Jag har gjort mycket som jag ångrar idag.

(3b) I have done many things/a lot that I regret today.


A Swedish perspective: Degree quantifiers (click to expand/contract)

In Swedish, the determiner många is like many in combining with plural nouns, whereas mycket combines both with singular and plural nouns. Similarly, Swedish combines with plural nouns, whereas lite combines both with singular and (in informal Swedish) plural nouns (the more formal föga combines with singular nouns only).

(1) Did you take many pictures of the wedding? (många/mycket bilder)

(2) Don’t use too much butter in the cake. (mycket)

(3) James made few mistakes on the test. (få, lite)

(4) The children showed little appreciation of her efforts. (lite, föga)

Note especially cases where Swedish has a plural noun corresponding to an English uncountable.

(5) There was not much news coming out of the convention. (inte många/mycket nyheter)

(6) James has very little furniture. (väldigt få/lite möbler)