The English language has a number of different words to describe quantities without specifying a number. What does it mean when someone refers to a ‘couple’ or ‘few’ or ‘some’ or ‘several’ or 'many’?
As a brief overview, the breakdown looks like this:
It’s common for English words to have precise definitions, but these words denoting quantity don’t always refer to a specific number. Usually, context can help the listener or reader understand the implied quantity.
‘Couple’ is often used as an adjective to describe two things. That being said, it isn’t completely uncommon to hear the word ‘couple’ used to describe a small number of things, even if there are more than two of them.
The word ‘couple’ can also be a noun that refers to two people that are linked together in a romantic partnership. In this usage, it only refers to two individuals.
It can also refer to two or more individuals that are considered together in a certain context. For example, you could say, “there are a couple of women in the living room.” In this usage, it could mean two or another small number more than one.
Finally, ‘couple’ is also a verb that means “to join for combined effect,” “to fasten together,” “to join in marriage or sexual union,” or “to connect for consideration together.”
‘Few’ is usually used to refer to a small number of things but typically implies a number slightly greater than a 'couple.' Some people use ‘few’ to specifically mean three things, while others believe it means three or four items.
The truth is, there isn’t a hard and fast rule for how many objects the word ‘few’ describes. That being said, it is generally used to describe a small number of things.
The intent has a lot to do with the meaning here. If one person asks to borrow “a few dollars,” they might mean only three or four. However, someone else could mean ten dollars or more using the same phrase.
There is a subtle difference between ‘a few’ and ‘few’ that should be addressed.
‘Few’ tends to emphasize the limitedness of a quantity. For example, “Few people actually attended the highly promoted event.”
‘A few,’ on the other hand, is used to express that there are some rather than none– e.g., “We didn’t expect any Christmas cards this year, but we did receive a few.”
The word ‘some’ doesn’t refer to a specific number of things. It can be understood to mean the same as a ‘few’ or nearly as many things as ‘several.’
Depending on the intent of the speaker, the meaning of ‘some’ can vary. That being said, it usually means more than a 'couple' but not a large number of a specific item or thing.
‘Several’ is commonly used to refer to a number that is larger than both a couple and a few but fewer than 'many.' Sometimes, though, you might hear it used in place of ‘couple’ or ‘few’ to describe a relatively small number of things.
‘Many’ doesn’t have a precise number attached to it but is generally understood to refer to more things than any of the aforementioned words (‘couple,’ ‘few,’ ‘some,’ or ‘several.’) It is often used interchangeably with 'a lot'-- for example, "there were a lot of dogs" vs. "there were many dogs."
It can also be used as a noun to describe the majority of people. For example, ‘the politician promised to focus on the needs of the many.’
Finally, ‘many’ can also be a pronoun that describes a large number of people or things. For example, ‘They hoped the new system would solve many of their problems.’
To help understand the ways that these words are used in writing and spoken language, let’s look at ‘several’ example sentences for each one.
Let’s look at some examples of using ‘couple’ to refer to a number of items or objects in sentences:
The history of different words isn’t just fascinating, but it can also be helpful in understanding why they mean what they do.
The word 'couple' was first used in the English language back in the 13th century as a noun. In this usage, it meant two people in a romantic relationship, a meaning that is still used today.
Soon thereafter, the word was used to describe pairs of objects. As early as the 1500s, the word ‘couple’ was used to describe an imprecise yet still small number of things.
‘Few’ is a word that dates all the way back to the 9th century. There has never been a definite number attached to it, and instead has always referred to a comparatively small number of things.
The word ‘some’ comes from the Old English word ‘sum’ meaning “a certain quantity; something, a certain one; a certain number.”
Dating back to the 1400s, ‘several’ first meant ‘separate’ or distinct.’ It didn’t actually develop its current meaning in relation to quantity until about a hundred years later.
By the 1600s, the word ‘several’ began being used to refer to an imprecise, yet not large number.
The word many comes from the Old English word ‘menigu,’ which itself comes from a prehistoric Germanic word. It has long meant “a crowd, many persons; an indefinitely large number” as a noun.
As an adjective, ‘many’ comes from the Middle English ‘mani’ or ‘manige,’ meaning “many, much, indefinitely numerous.”
Understanding which of these words describing imprecise quantities to use in any given situation is something that gets easier over time.
The simplest way to understand it is that ‘couple’ is best used to describe two objects or people, while ‘few’ is commonly used to describe more than two but less than ‘several.’ ‘Some’ and ‘several’ describe quantities less than ‘many,’ while ‘many’ describes the largest quantity out of all of the words on the list.
Looking for help in understanding more perplexing words? Check out our confusing words section that aims to demystify the English language.