Using “Few” vs. “A Few” vs. “Quite a Few” in a GMAT Verbal Question

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomOn quite a few occasions, we at Veritas Prep find ourselves explaining the difference between the terms “few” and “a few” – a subtle, but very important distinction which has, on occasion, completely changed the meaning of a sentence. Hence, we realized that a post on this difference is warranted.

“Few”, when used without a preceding “a”, means “very few” or “none at all”. “Few” is a negative, which puts the quantity of what you are describing near zero.

On the other hand, “a few” is used to indicate “not a large number”. “A few” also indicates a small approximate number, but it is positive nonetheless.

The difference between the two is subtle, yet there are instances where the two can mean completely opposite things. For example, “I have a few friends” is the same as saying “I have some friends”. “I have few friends”, however, implies that I have only very few friends (as opposed to many). It can also imply that I don’t feel very well about it, and I wish I had more friends.

Also, note that there is a very common expression, “quite a few”, which looks like it could mean “rather few” or “very few”, but it does not. It actually means the exact opposite: “a large or significant number” or “many”. So saying, “I have quite a few friends,” is the same as saying “I have quite a lot of friends”.

Here are a few other simple examples:

  • A few people think that red wine is healthy.
    • This implies some people think that red wine is healthy.
  • Few people think that red wine is healthy.
    • This implies only very few people, a very small number, think that red wine is healthy; most think that it is not.
  • Quite a few people think that red wine is healthy.
    • This implies many people, a large number, think that red wine is healthy.

Let’s examine an official Critical Reasoning question in which confusion among these terms could lead to an incorrect answer:

Until now, only injectable vaccines against influenza have been available. They have been primarily used by older adults who are at risk for complications from influenza. A new vaccine administered in a nasal spray form has proven effective in preventing influenza in children. Since children are significantly more likely than adults to contract and spread influenza, making the new vaccine widely available for children will greatly reduce the spread of influenza across the population. 

Which of the following, if true, most strengthens the argument?

(A) If a person receives both the nasal spray and the injectable vaccine, they do not interfere with each other. 
(B) The new vaccine uses the same mechanism to ward off influenza as injectable vaccines do. 
(C) Government subsidies have kept the injectable vaccines affordable for adults. 
(D) Of the older adults who contract influenza, relatively few contract it from children with influenza. 
(E) Many parents would be more inclined to have their children vaccinated against influenza if it did not involve an injection. 

Let’s break down the argument of this passage first. We are given following premises:

  • Until now, only injections of the influenza vaccine were available.
  • These injections were primarily used by older adults.
  • Now nasal sprays are available that prevent influenza in children.
  • Children are more likely to contract and spread influenza.
  • Conclusion: If nasal sprays are made available for children, it will greatly reduce the spread of influenza across the population.

Does something come to mind when you read this conclusion? What initially came to my mind was that if children are most likely to contract and spread influenza, they should have just been given the injections and that would have prevented the spread of disease across the population. Why is it that the availability of a nasal spray will prevent the spread of influenza but injections have not been able to do this?

We need to strengthen the argument, so we should focus on our conclusion and find out what will strengthen it the most. Let’s go through each of the answer choices:

(A) If a person receives both the nasal spray and the injectable vaccine, they do not interfere with each other.

If a person has already been given an injection, he or she is immune to influenza – taking the nasal spray on top of this will not have any impact on his or her immunity. This option is irrelevant to the argument, thus A cannot be our answer.

(B) The new vaccine uses the same mechanism to ward off influenza as injectable vaccines do.

This answer choice only says that the nasal sprays work in the same way the injections do. We are not told exactly why injections could not prevent the spread of influenza while the nasal spray will, so this option is also not correct.

(C) Government subsidies have kept the injectable vaccines affordable for adults.

This option tells us that the subsidies have kept injections affordable for all older adults, but it doesn’t say anything about the cost of the nasal spray. If, instead, this option stated, “Injections are very expensive but nasal spray is a cheap alternative”, it might have made a stronger contender, however we do not know whether cost is a factor that parents consider at all when getting their children vaccinate (to make this option the correct answer, we might even have to add something like, “Parents are not willing to get their kids immunized if the vaccine is very expensive”). As is, however, this answer choice is not correct.

(D) Of the older adults who contract influenza, relatively few contract it from children with influenza.

Here is the trick – many test takers feel that this option is like an assumption, and hence, it certainly strengthens the conclusion. “Few” is assumed to be “some”, so it seems to them that this option is saying, “Some older adults do contract influenza from children”. It certainly seems to be an assumption, since that is how the spread of influenza will reduce across the population of older adults.

We know, however, that “few” actually means “hardly any” or “near zero”. If few (near zero) older adults catch flu from children, it doesn’t strengthen the conclusion. If anything, it has the opposite effect since the older adults will be unaffected, and hence, it is unlikely that the spread of influenza will reduce across the population. Because of this, option D is not correct.

(E) Many parents would be more inclined to have their children vaccinated against influenza if it did not involve an injection.

Now this is what we are looking for – a reason why parents don’t give influenza shots to their kids but will be willing to give them nasal sprays. Parents don’t like to give shots to their kids (could be due pain associated with a shot or whatever, the reason why doesn’t really matter here), but now that a nasal spray version of the vaccine is available, they will be more inclined to get their kids vaccinated. This will probably help prevent the spread of influenza across the population. The correct answer, therefore, is E.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!

GMAT Tip of the Week

A Logical Approach To Sentence Correction

(This is one of a series of GMAT tips that we offer on our blog.)

There is probably no more illogical discipline in academia than English grammar, in which seemingly the only rule is that there are generally several exceptions to each rule. Alas, as English has become a primary language of the business world, the GMAT requires examinees to be proficient in a number of grammatical devices through the Sentence Correction style of question, which comprises 1/3 of the Verbal section of the exam. Fear not (or, maybe fear slightly), however, as the GMAT focuses on a limited scope of the English language, and the Veritas Prep verbal syllabus teaches those particular skills thoroughly.

Because of the seemingly-illogical nature of the English language, it would seem illogical that some of the more-difficult GMAT Sentence Correction questions can be answered using logic. Say, for example, that you narrowed your answer choices down to the following:

B) Gary mistook the car, which was backfiring, for a gunshot.

D) Gary mistook the sound of a backfiring car for a gunshot.

While neither may appear to have a distinct grammatical error, answer choice B is simply illogical – a gunshot is a sound (or event) while a car is an object, and therefore one could not logically mistake the car for the gunshot. D, which correctly equates the sound of the car with the sound of the gunshot, is an accurate sentence, and is thus correct.

How can you use this to your advantage? Consider this — it doesn’t behoove business schools to admit students based upon their knowledge of obscure and complicated English language idioms, but it does make sense for schools to admit students who can think logically. While certain elements of grammar are distinctly testable, and you need to understand them thoroughly, if you don’t see an opportunity to employ one of the major error types, your time may be better spent by considering the logic of the remaining options than by worrying over tiny constructions of idiomatic grammar.

For more GMAT prep tips and resources, visit Veritas Prep.