Although 'a few' and 'few' are nearly identical, they carry very different emphases. 'A few' is used as a positive expression, simply indicating that the quantity in question is higher than two. The term 'few,' however, is most often used negatively to express a count that is low or lower than expected.
Compare the following sentences:
- "Few cell lines can survive for extended periods at room temperature.”
- “The flask was left out of the incubator all night, but there were still a few viable cells.”
The first sentence emphasizes that almost no cell lines can withstand those conditions. The second implies that there is still hope; some of the cells have not yet died.
Likewise, if an author writes that “a few patients recovered after taking the test compound,” he or she is emphasizing a positive result. If the author intends to emphasize the failure of the treatment, he or she should write “Although the test compound showed positive results in rats, few patients benefited from the treatment.” In both cases, the author’s sentence is correct, but the emphasis changes. As such, “a few of the patients recovered” should not be considered the same as “few patients recovered.”
Please note that 'a few' and 'few' are used with count nouns, whereas 'little' and 'a little' precede mass (non-count) nouns. For more information about count nouns and mass nouns, see our earlier post on 'Less' vs. 'Fewer.'