When I was putting together my IELTS grammar guide, I read dozens of practice essays, primarily by students who had scored in Band 6 on previous exams. It quickly became apparent that many test-takers were struggling with similar grammatical concepts, and one of the most common ones involved the use of articles with a specific group of “quantity” words.
On one hand, this is entirely understandable: a(n) and the are notoriously tricky for people whose native languages do not use articles the way English does, and it is often not fully clear to them why these words even need to be used at all. As a result, they may not realize how omitting them can change the meaning of certain statements and/or make their English seem unnatural.
In everyday life, this is unlikely to seriously impede communication; however, in terms of the IELTS—and particularly IELTS Writing—it can create real problems. Phrases involving words like majority and number are relevant to most IELTS Task essay questions (Task 2 as well as Task 1 Academic Training) and may need to be used multiple times within a given response. Furthermore, these terms are frequently used in introductions, and errors there can subtly influence a reader’s impression of an entire essay—a poor first impression can be hard to counteract.
So that said, here is what you need to know.
Few vs. A Few
Both few and a few are always used with a plural noun, e.g., few people or a few people.
However, each term has a specific and a separate meaning; few is not simply a shortened version of a few. If you do not use the correct form, you may unintentionally write things that do not make sense, or that imply something other than what you intended to imply.
Few = hardly any; has a negative connotation: indicates unpopularity
A few = a small number, several; has a neutral or positive connotation: indicates slight to moderate popularity
The vast majority of errors involve omitting the indefinite article and writing few when a few is needed.
Correct: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but a few researchers (= a small number of researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.
The sentence serves to introduce conflicting perspectives according to a standard formula: most people believe x, but others people believe y. The point is that although the minority viewpoint is held by only a small number of people, it does have some popularity.
Incorrect: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but few researchers (= almost no researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.
This version does not really make sense: the sentence is intended to imply that the “comet” theory has some support, but the use of few eliminates this implication.
If you want to suggest that a group is really quite small, you can also say just a few or only a few.
You cannot, however, say just few or only few. These constructions do not exist.
Correct: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only a few people remained.
Incorrect: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only few people remained.
On the other hand, few without the article is used to emphasize that hardly anyone or anything belongs to a particular group.
Correct: Although it is reasonable for politicians to listen to the opinions of business leaders when writing environmental regulations, few people (= almost no one) would suggest that manufacturers alone should be responsible for determining policies that affect natural resources.
The use of few is logical here since presumably manufacturers would be more interested in using up natural resources than in preserving plant and animal habitats.
If the writer had written a few instead of few, the contrast between the two parts of the sentence would be lost, and the statement would not make much sense.
The Majority, A Majority
Majority = most (>50%)
This word is always used with an article: the is standard, although a is generally acceptable as well. It has a slightly less strong implication, but for practical purposes, the two versions are the same.
Correct: The majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.
Acceptable: A majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.
Incorrect: Majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.
When majority is modified, however, a is used. Again, the article is required; it is not replaced by the adjective.
Correct: A large majority voted in favor of the new policy.
Incorrect: Large majority voted in favor of the new policy.
A Number, The Number
Number must be used with an article, either a or the. Both are typically followed by of + noun.
A number = many; can be used alone or with a modifier such as large, small, etc.
The number = the quantity
Correct: A number (= many) people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.
Correct: A substantial number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.
Correct: The number of people who said they would come to the party but then changed their minds was quite substantial.
Incorrect: Number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.