How many is several?

How many is 'several'? If I said to you I'd posted on this blog several times this week, how many times would you think I meant?

Personally I use 'several' to mean a very small number, three to five perhaps - for me it is almost synonymous with 'a few'. But I realise that a lot of other people use 'several' to mean a higher number than this.

One person I spoke to yesterday believed 'several' to mean 'a number around seven', perhaps because of the similarity between the words 'several' and seven'. Although the two words have different etymologies, making connections like this between similar-sounding words is quite common and understandable.

To my surprise the OED agrees with me on 'several', defining it as "more than two but not many". 'A few', in comparison, is "a small number of; not many". So I wouldn't say that 'several' is bigger than 'a few', at least according to the dictionary definition. But then, I would love to hear what you think...

A few, or several? Or am I losing my marbles?


Gareth said...

I'd probably go for a sliding scale as follows:

- a couple
- a few
- several
- many
- loads

So a couple almost always means two, but occasionally can stretch into three ("I am going away for a couple of days" could mean a long weekend, for instance). A few is either three or four. Several maybe one or two more than this. Loads is self-explanatory.

But that's just me. I guess everyone's got their own definitions.

Neil said...

The only flaw I can find in that logic is when the fatal words "I'm just going for a couple of pints" are spoken, in which case a couple ends up meaning 5-10!!

(although the intent is probably correct!)

Gareth said...

Ah, that's the exception that proves the rule. "One or two pints" means at least two. "A couple of pints" is three or four. "A few pints" is five or six. And "several pints" is a lost weekend.

garik said...

My scale matches the other Gareth's. I agree that going out for several pints feels like a heavier night than going out for a few. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just wrong.

JD said...

'A few minutes' can, in my experience, mean up to half an hour...

Neil said...

Yes JD there must be a separate scale for the female species!

a couple of minutes = 5-10
a few minutes = minimum 30
several minutes = an hour
etc etc

Roy said...

Several is definitely more than few. If I had few opportunities it would mean very little. If, however, i had several opportunities it would surely mean that I had quite a few. So this proves that few divides into several making it smaller. Brilliant!

JD said...

When I was teaching English as a foreign language in Russia my students were initially confused by the difference between 'few' and 'a few', especially as Russian doesn't have any articles ('a','an','the')

Gregory said...

I've always used a fairly rigid scale for the meanings of these vague terms - though no-one else I know would agree with my definitions. :)

A couple = 2 (obviously)
A few = 3-6
Several = 7-12
Many = 13+

Loads is just another word for many, for me.

jake said...

a couple= 2
a few= 3- 5
several= 6- 11
a dozen= 12
many- 13+

Anonymous said...


David said...

A couple is obvious as many have said. Over the years, I have always thought of a few as four or five, all starting with the letter F. Similarly, I have always thought of several as six or seven, all starting with S.

Kannan said...

Many but not too many.

Anonymous said...

In legal writing, the distinction between 'jointly' and 'severally' applies to two or more persons. Accordingly, in a legal context 'several' refers to two or more than two.

Katie said...

Several=single digits