There are certain peculiarities about “few.” Used by itself, it has a negative connotation.
If we say he has few regrets about leaving his present organisation, it means the person concerned has no regrets at all.
But preceded by “a” it contains a positive connotation. Therefore, if we say he has a few regrets about leaving his present organisation, it connotes that he has regrets.
Such sentences are, however, called “litotes.” It is an understatement through which an affirmative is expressed by using the negative of the opposite.
He was a man of few words – PG Woodhouse
There were very few openings in universities at the moment – The Economist
On the other hand, quite a few makes the word still more positive. There is another peculiarity about this word. “A few” takes a plural verb. Only a few were present at the function.
Eric Partridge has cleared the confusion in his “Usage and Abusage.” He quoted the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which says, “Without a prefixed word, few usually implies antithesis with many, whereas with a few, signifying many, the antithesis is “none at all.”
Therefore, “few” perhaps means “none at all.” On the contrary, “a few” indicates many.
“Few” may also mean a small company, specified or understood. Now, it is used in the sense of minority. A good few, though such a phrase is colloquial.
Another problem a writer faces is to distinguish between “less” and “fewer.” In careful usage “less” applies to quantity – less food, less courage, less enthusiasm. But “fewer” applies to countable nouns. There are fewer books in the library than we expected. “Fewer” is, though barely misused, there is a tendency to misuse “less.”
A writer often says, “There are less mosquitoes in the city this year.” Yet, according to strict grammar rules, the writer of this sentence should have used “fewer.”
In Dos, Don’ts & Maybes, Theodore M Bernstein, consulting editor of The New York Times, wrote: “Less” is sometimes used with plurals when they really refer to quantity rather than number. For instance, it would be proper to say, “He makes less than $ 100 a week”; the $100 is not thought of as individual dollars but rather as a sum of money.”
Similarly, it would be proper to say, “The district headquarters is less than ten miles to the village.” In the sentence, ten miles is not thought of as individual miles, but rather as a distance figure.
“Less” can be used to qualify number. The number of people at the function was “less.”
On the contrary, it would be incorrect to say there were “less” people at the function, since “less” does not qualify people.
If copy editors accept “ten items or fewer,” it seems they have lost their reasons. That is unfortunate. A few dictionaries, however, maintain “less” is synonymous with “fewer,” and “fewer” with “less.” That is more unfortunate than anything else. So, it is time that everyone loudly complains.
Ergo, we must try to make “fewer” errors and have “less” loose usage.
There is another issue and that is between “few” and “little.” Both are implied negatives. To make them positive, we should use a prefix “a” before both.
There was a sentence in a national daily: Few men escaped, and all these were rewarded. The generated a little laughter among a few careful readers. Many of them said if nobody escaped, who got the reward. The writer of this sentence should have written – A few.
“The few” is now generally used in the sense of the minority and is opposed to the majority.
“The few” means not many. The few parks we have in the city are not maintained. It signifies we do not have many parks, but whatever we have are not maintained.