Do You Understand Quantifiers? Here Are ‘A Few’ Tips

Wednesday, January 53 min read

A quantifier is a handy word used to express a certain amount of something. Typically, these are terms that come before a noun to indicate a quantity — for example, “a few apples,” “some milk,” or “a pinch of salt.” Quantifiers are usually adjectives, but sometimes a noun (such as “a pinch”) works, too. Some describe specific amounts, but others are uncountable. While many more English quantifiers exist than those listed below, here are some of the most frequently used (and often misused) terms.

“A Couple” vs. “A Few”

“A couple” and “a few” are both quantifier phrases to indicate a small amount of something. They’re often used interchangeably, but they’re not exact synonyms. By literal definition, “a couple” means two. However, it is acceptable to use “a couple” as an indefinite number in informal situations (“I need a couple more minutes”) This phrase doesn’t mean exactly two more minutes, but it implies a small number of minutes.

The phrase “a few” is used in a similar way to describe a small number of something, but usually three or more. It’s generally accepted that "a couple" and "a few" have an imaginary boundary when the amount no longer qualifies as small, but there is no official limit.

“Several” vs. “Some”

“Several” and “some” mean the same thing, but they modify different types of nouns. “Several” is a countable quantity, and “some” is used for uncountable quantities. For example, “I was sick for several days” indicates that the number of days is not specified, but it’s still countable. As for the exact amount, more than a couple is several, but there is still a limit. “Several” would more likely mean three, four, or five than it would mean 20.

“Some” is often called a determiner, rather than a quantifier, because it refers to an unspecified number or amount (“I would like some cake”) or can describe an unknown entity (“There is some mistake”). “Some” can be used as a pronoun to indicate more than a few, but still an unknown amount of people or things (“Some of us want coffee, while some want tea”). If using “some” in a request, be prepared to answer a follow-up (“Can I have some napkins?” “Sure, how many?”).

“Approximately” vs. “About” vs. Around”

These “a” quantifiers are similar, but they have slightly different usages. They are all estimations, but “approximately” is the most specific; it quantifies that something is almost accurate or exact. Perhaps the exact amount is known but expressing it might be too technical, so “approximately” is close enough (The tank holds approximately 10 gallons). “About” is more casual and less exact (“I think there are about three or four cans of beans in the pantry). “Around” falls into the informal camp as well, but it’s used for even less specific contexts (“Let’s meet around noon”).

Unlike “a couple” or “several,” these quantifiers don’t have a limit. They could estimate amounts in the single digits, or in the millions. But as the amounts get larger, the scales change. “Approximately 7.5” doesn’t make as much sense as “approximately 7.5 million.” You might say “about 10” instead of “about 7.5,” and it would be fine, but “about 10 million” is drastically different than “about 7.5 million.”

Numerous vs. Multiple

“Numerous,” by definition, refers to a large number of things — numerous volunteers, numerous days, numerous occasions, etc. Sometimes this word is used incorrectly to mean “a few,” but “few” is an antonym of “numerous.” “Multiple” can be used to describe any number more than one, but it implies a large volume, rather than a limited amount.

A lot vs. A bunch

Let’s clear up one common mistake: “Alot” is not a word. “A lot” is a quantifier phrase that essentially means many of something. The phrase “a bunch” is an even more informal version of “a lot” (“I grabbed a bunch of cookies”). By definition, “a bunch” is the same kind, such as a bunch of grapes, but “a lot” can imply a mixture of things. Neither “a lot” nor “a bunch” have a defined limit, so the grouping could be three or 3 million.

Featured image credit: SDI Productions/ iStock

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