Articles can make a big difference in English, and in no other situation is this more evident with the quantifiers a few, a little, few and little.
Here is all you need to know about when the words should be used, and the difference in meaning.
‘A few’ and ‘a little’
The fundamental difference between the words ‘a few’ and ‘a little’ is that ‘a few’ is used with countable nouns (nouns that can have an ‘s’ added to make the plural) and plural nouns (a noun that always represents more than one of something), whereas ‘a little’ is only used with uncountable nouns (nouns that cannot be counted individually). Here are some examples:
I have a few friends who go to that college. (countable noun)
There are a few people at the party already. (plural noun)
I have a little money left, so we can buy a few more things. (uncountable noun)
But the meaning of ‘a few’ and ‘a little’ is fundamentally the same: some, although not many.
However, it is important to understand that this word also suggests something positive, or at least neutral in nature. That means that as well as giving you numerical information (about how many friends, people or how much money we are speaking about), you can also interpret from the speaker that the situation is something positive, or at least not negative.
The best examples of this concept are in these examples:
There are a few people at the party already.
I have a little money left, so we can buy a few more things.
Here we can understand that the party is starting to come alive (probably a good thing), and in the case of the money, although the amount is not large, it is enough to do something with, which can be interpreted as a small positive.
‘Few’ and ‘little’
Regarding countable, plural and uncountable nouns, the rules for ‘few’ and ‘little’ are exactly the same.
I have few friends who go to that college. (countable noun)
There are few people at the party. (plural noun)
I have little money left, so we can’t buy any more things. (uncountable noun)
As you can see by the way the two last examples have been changed, the connotation (interpretation of the words used) is not different. That is because there is now a negative feeling to what has been said.
So, in the case of the party, it suggests a disappointing party (because not many people have attended). And in the case of the money, the amount is now too small to do anything with.
In the first example, relating to friends, it is the feeling of the speaker that has now changed from something positive (‘a few friends’) to something disappointing (‘few friends’).
So, there you have it, just that tiny indefinite article makes a big difference to the connotation of the speech. Tread carefully with such language to avoid misunderstandings.