The adjectives ōi 多い and sukunai 少ない respectively mean “many” and “few” respectively. As straight forward as that may seem, using these words poses its own problems.
Ōi tomodachi ga imasu.
I have many friends.
Jimoto ni wa sukunai tempo ga arimasu.
There are few stores at my home town.
As these examples show, they cannot be used like all other adjectives in directly modifying a noun.
Ano kame wa kawaii desu ne.
That turtle is cute, isn’t it?
Kyōshitsu ni wa kawaii kame ga imasu.
There is a cute turtle in the classroom.
In this lesson, we will look intently at what exactly defines these adjectives and how they are unique. We will now investigate further into how these two adjectives are used so that you don’t fall victim to the many mistakes that few students don’t end up making.
Interestingly, both ōi 多い and sukunai 少ない may be used at the end of the sentence without problem, but they differ regarding their ability to precede nouns.
Kōen ni wa benchi ga ōi desu.
There are many benches in the park.
Kōen ni wa, ōi benchi ga arimasu.
There are many benches in the park.
Kono shūhen ni wa, benchi ga oi kōen ga arimasu.
There is a park with many benches nearby.
Watashi wa okane ga sukunai desu.
I have little money.
Sukunai okane de kurasu hito ga takusan imasu.
There is a lot of people who live with little money.
Tempo ga sukunai tokoro ni sunde imasu.
I live in a place where there are few stores.
As you can see, it is not always the case that sukunai 少ない can’t directly precede and modify a noun. It also happens to be the case that both can be before a noun if part of a dependent clause modifying a noun.
Because these adjectives indicate quantity/size of something, there must be an element in the sentence indicating what the quantity/size is. When using these adjectives as the predicate of the sentence, you must use the pattern "X wa Y ga Z", with these adjectives being Z. The subject can only be dropped if the information has already been supplemented in context.
Shiatoru de wa ame ga ōi desu.
There is a lot of rain in Seattle.
Word Note: Both ōi 多い and sukunai 少ない can be used to indicate frequency.
Tekisasu-shū de wa ame ga sukunai desu.
There is little rain in Texas.
Okinawa no ryōri wa ryō ga ōi desu ne.
The portions are large in Okinawan cuisine.
Naze kōkyū ryōri wa ryō ga sukunai no desu ka?
Why is it that the portions are small in high class cuisine?
Word Note: Unlike in English, the word ryō 量 (quantity) and any word with it are used as if they are countable entities. This is because aside from meaning that there is “few” or “many” of something, they may also indicate the size of quantity. Incidentally, chiisai 小さい and ōkii 大きい may occasionally be used in relation to physical entities, but sukunai 少ない and ōi 多い are used almost always.
Tatemono ga ōi desu.
There are many buildings.
Kanji ga sukunai desu.
There are few Kanji.
Context Note: If the context as for what the quantity statement these adjectives describe is not clear, obvious, and or stated, their use becomes ungrammatical. This, however, is no different than English.
“Tōkyō wa dō deshita ka?” “Tatemono ga ōkatta desu.”
“How was Tokyo?” “There were many buildings.”
“Machi no ichiba wa dō desu ka?” “Ōkii sakana ga sukunai desu.”
“How is the town’s market?” “There are few large fish.”
Now let’s return to how these adjectives are used to directly modify nouns.
Mumbai wa jinkō ga ōi machi desu.
Mumbai is a town with a large population.
Mumbai wa ōi machi desu.
Mumbai is a large town.
Kakusū ga sukunai kanji ga ōi.
There are many Kanji with few strokes.
Kakusū ga ōi kanji wa, jitsu wa, ōku arimasen.
As for Kanji with many strokes, in actuality, there aren’t that many.
Sukunai kanji wa kakusu ga oku arimasen.
Few Kanji don’t have many strokes.
The reason for why sukunai 少ない and ōi 多い are incapable of directly modifying nouns is that they don’t express the attributes of something. They solely describe quantity. When they are in dependent clauses which then modify a noun, they still only indicate the quantity of whatever is inside the dependent clause with them, and it is only case that that assertion is being used to qualify another noun.
To express “few” and “many” while directly modifying a noun, sukunai 少ない and ōi 多い must be replaced with sukoshi no 少しの and ōku no 多くの respectively. However, just because you convert to the latter forms, doesn’t mean that there are never any quirks.
Ōsaka ni wa, ōku no otera ga aru ka dō ka shirimasen.
I don’t know whether there are many temples in Osaka.
[Ōku no/takusan no/ōzei no] hito ga atsumarimashita.
Many people gathered.
Word Note: Takusan no 沢山の and ōzei no 大勢の are no-adjectival nouns that, in this situation, are slightly more natural and common than ōku no 多くの. This is because both sukunai 少ない and ōi 多い, and by default, sukoshi no 少しの and ōku no 多くの, indicate whether an amount exceeds or is below a standard amount, but if there is no standard not ascertainable in context, using them becomes somewhat unnatural in contrast to words like takusan 沢山 (many) and wazuka 僅か (few) which are more emphatic.
Sukoshi no kingaku kara ōkina kasegi wo tsukuru.
To make large earnings from a small amount of money.
Kare wa wazuka na kingaku wo yokubatte ichiman’en no sonshitsu wo kōmurimashita.
He coveted a small amount of money and lost 10,000 yen.
Exceptions with Sukunai 少ない
When sukunai 少ない is in fact used in directly modifying a noun, its meaning is the same as wazuka na わずかな, which is to show the sheer scarcity/lack of quantity. This is made possible because whenever sukunai 少ない is used in this way, the parameters are deemed as societal general knowledge, and so there is no need to explicitly ‘restate’ said parameters.
Sukunai kyūryō de okane wo tameru.
To save money with little income.
Samazama na, sukunai zairyō de dekite imasu.
It’s made with various, scarce materials.
Watashitachi wa konkai, motto sukunai jikan de tassei shimashita.
We accomplished it in far less time this time.