Difference between "poco" and "un poco"

In Spanish we use the word "poco" in different ways to express an indefinite quantity of something or to express infrequency but sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between "poco" and "un poco". 

For example:

A mediodía siempre como poco.
At midday I never eat much. [lit: I always eat little]

A mediodía yo como un poco y después sigo trabajando.
At midday I eat a bit and then keep on working.

Notice how in the first case, in English the literal translation doesn't work well, so it is generally translated as a negative sentence (not much). 

Let's see other examples:

Ella ha comido un poco antes de acostarse.
She ate a bit before going to bed.

Ella come poco por la noche.
She doesn't eat much in the evenings. [lit: she eats little]

He ganado poco este mes.
I didn't earn much this month. [lit: I earned little]

He ahorrado un poco para mis vacaciones.
I saved a bit for my holidays.

You can emphasise the quantity by adding muy:

Hemos dormido muy poco esta noche por el ruido de los bares.
We slept very little last night because of the noise from the bars.

In all the examples above, poco and un poco accompany verbs, as adverbs they are invariable.

Let's see how they work as adjectives when accompanying nouns.

Poco/-a/-os/-as + nouns

Bebe poco alcohol, que eres muy joven.
Don't drink much alcohol, because you are very young.

Come poca grasa. No es bueno para tu colesterol.
Don't eat too much fat [lit: eat little fat]. It is not good for your cholesterol.

Mis hijos han hecho pocos amigos en el colegio.
My sons didn't make many friends at school. [lit: made few friends]

Quedan pocas cervezas en la nevera.
There aren't many beers left in the fridge. [lit: there are few beers left]

As you can see in the examples above poco agrees in gender and number with the noun it accompanies (poc alcohol, poca grasa, pocos amigos, pocas cervezas).

Un poco de + nouns in singular

Necesito un poco de sol en mi piel. Estoy muy pálida.
I need a little sun on my skin. I am very pale.

Necesito un poco de agua. Tengo mucha sed.
I need a little water. I am very thirsty.

Notice how we add "de" to express "a bit of something". Even when accompanying nouns, it is invariable in the singular, so it does not change to una poca de with feminine singular nouns.

Pon una poca de sal en el guiso.
Pon un poco de sal en el guiso.
Put a bit of salt in the stew.
la sal =  the salt

 Unos pocos/unas pocas de + nouns in plural

Carlos trajo a unos pocos amigos a la fiesta.
Carlos brought a few friends to the party.

Voy de viaje con unas pocas amigas de la universidad.
I am travelling with a few friends from the university.

See how with plural nouns we drop the "de".

Voy de viaje con unas pocas de amigas de la universidad.

When we use unos pocos/unas pocas + noun it has the same meaning as "algunos/algunas" (some).

Voy con algunas amigas de la universidad.

See also:

 

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Carlos trajo a unos pocos amigos a la fiesta.
Carlos brought a few friends to the party.


A mediodía yo como un poco y después sigo trabajando.
At midday I eat a bit and then keep on working.


A mediodía siempre como poco.
At midday I never eat much. [lit: I always eat little]


Quedan pocas cervezas en la nevera.
There aren't many beers left in the fridge. [lit: there are few beers left]


He ganado poco este mes.
I didn't earn much this month. [lit: I earned little]


Bebe un poco de alcohol para animarte.
Drink a little alcohol to cheer yourself up.


Bebe poco alcohol, que eres muy joven.
Don't drink much alcohol, because you are very young.


Mis hijos han hecho pocos amigos en el colegio.
My sons didn't make many friends at school. [lit: made few friends]


Hemos dormido muy poco esta noche por el ruido de los bares.
We slept very little last night because of the noise from the bars.


Necesito un poco de agua. Tengo mucha sed.
I need a little water. I am very thirsty.


He ahorrado un poco para mis vacaciones.
I saved a bit for my holidays.


Come poca grasa. No es bueno para tu colesterol.
Don't eat too much fat [lit: eat little fat]. It is not good for your cholesterol.


Ella ha comido un poco antes de acostarse.
She ate a bit before going to bed.


Voy de viaje con unas pocas amigas de la universidad.
I am travelling with a few friends from the university.


Ella come poco por la noche.
She doesn't eat much in the evenings. [lit: she eats little]


Necesito un poco de sol en mi piel. Estoy muy pálida.
I need a little sun on my skin. I am very pale.


Q&A Forum 2 questions, 3 answers

Translation confusion

I don't understanding the translation. For example why not use Domimos instead of "Hemos dormido", and why not anoche instead of "esta noche"?

Asked 3 weeks ago
InmaKwiziq language super starCorrect answer

Hola Pati

We chose to use this one in the lesson:

Hemos dormido muy poco esta noche por el ruido de los bares.

We slept very little last night because of the noise from the bars.

But we could have also said:

Anoche dormimos muy poco por el ruido de los bares.

We slept very little last night because of the noise from the bars.

They both mean the same, but when we use the time adverb "Anoche" we (in Spaninish minds) think of it as a completed time, as finished, and therefore use the preterite (dorminos).

However when we use "esta noche" also meaning "last night" somehow in Spanish minds we think of it as a time still connected to the present time when you speak, therefore triggering the present perfect (hemos dormido). 

Here is a lesson that talks about this. Have a look here.

I hope this clarified it for you.

Saludos

Inma

Translation confusion

I don't understanding the translation. For example why not use Domimos instead of "Hemos dormido", and why not anoche instead of "esta noche"?

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Difference between 'pocas + noun in plural' and 'Unos pocos/unas pocas + nouns in plural'

I am a little confused with the following quiz sentence/ answer:  'Tardé pocas horas en hacerlo.', for which the correct answer is 'pocas horas'.  Why wouldn't 'unas pocas horas' also be correct?

Asked 4 months ago
InmaKwiziq language super star
Hola Michael

In this sentence:

"Tardé pocas horas en hacerlo."

(It didn't take long to do it. [lit: I took few hours to do it])

The speaker is saying he/she took few hours (as in not too many hours, so it has a positive meaning)

If we changed it to:

"Tardé unas pocas horas en hacerlo."

This would mean "It took me a few hours to do it" (Here it is implying that it took long, so it is more of a negative meaning.)

If you have a look at this other sentence taken from the lesson:

"Quedan pocas cervezas en la nevera."

There aren't many beers left in the fridge. [lit: there are few beers left]

and now see how it turns into something different if you use "unas pocas":

"Quedan unas pocas cervezas en la nevera."

There are a few beers left in the fridge. 

The second option with "un poco de", "unos pocos..." "unas pocas" is always more literal in English, "a bit of", "a few..." 

Hope this clarified it for you.

Saludos

Inma

 

Wow, your clarification is great, so is the study lesson.

Difference between 'pocas + noun in plural' and 'Unos pocos/unas pocas + nouns in plural'

I am a little confused with the following quiz sentence/ answer:  'Tardé pocas horas en hacerlo.', for which the correct answer is 'pocas horas'.  Why wouldn't 'unas pocas horas' also be correct?

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