Monday, April 24, 2006

The few who use "few" instead of "a few"

I've often noticed that many non-native English speakers drop the grammatical article "a" of "a few" where they shouldn't. This is because many languages do not have articles while in some languages like Tamil, there are other devices to indicate definiteness. I wondered if when some languages that do not have articles are, at least, as expressive as English, are the articles redundant?

The answer is a "no" as explained by a coworker in the editorial team: "Each language conveys meaning with its own set of structures. Once the structure is set up, you can’t make meaning in the language effectively without all the pieces, but if a given language is structured without parts that another language uses, they’re unnecessary in that language. Imagine if a few players in a soccer game quit kicking the ball and starting throwing it, like a basketball." The soccer-basketball analogy hit the nail on the head. There are people who believe that articles are more fundamental while I think other devices could be used for "quantification". Whichever is true, articles are simply fascinating.

The use of articles has an acute relevance in the chosen case of "a few" vs "few". When we say "a few", we mean "some" with the connotation analogous to a glass "partly full", whereas the meaning of "few" is almost the opposite with the connotation analogous to a glass "almost empty". The sentence "a few of us liked the show." means that we know some who liked the show, whereas without the article, it would mean that almost none of us liked it.

For a self-test of article usage skills, one should take this quiz. I got a score of 96% The site also has an excellent guide on articles.

Meta: Funnily enough, blogger thinks that articles are superfluous. Look at the URL for this post http://enkirukkal.blogspot.com/2006/04/few-who-use-few-instead-of-few.html :P

5 Comments:

Blogger Sanket said...

Someone was telling me once that Indians use a lot of superfluous articles, especially "the". I didn't bother to explore the truth in that, of course. But I had a feeling that it was true in my case. Over a period of time, however, I was relieved to know that it was not so. This test also helped me. I got 95% btw. I'd actually like to check out if there is a test on the proper usage of the 'comma'. I am sure I'll score much less in that. ;)

April 25, 2006 2:03 pm  
Blogger Sundar said...

95% is a good score. You should try this quiz (via Ishwar) to test your commas. I too scored very poorly in that test. :-( Fortunately, the apostrophe saved me.

April 25, 2006 2:12 pm  
Blogger Sundar said...

You could also try this and this . More quizzes here.

April 25, 2006 2:24 pm  
Blogger Anthroponym said...

kirukkal english speaking course ;-)

April 26, 2006 4:25 pm  
Blogger Sundar said...

@anthro: He he.

April 26, 2006 4:38 pm  

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