I don't think that's what he meant: you may be asked to fill a blank in this sentence where мало is, and есть is an alternative which may seem right but isn't. If есть were the correct answer, then лук would stay in nominative, but it doesn't, it's in its genitive form лука, which means the word filling the blank can either be the negative particle нет or a quantifier много/мало.
With the exception of small children and those few unfortunate individuals who have been short-changed on their education, it's ridiculous to assume that native English-speakers "tend to confuse" few and a few.
I recommend that you revise "native speakers of English" to "some speakers of English" or "some people".
I'm sure those words have those meanings, Shady_arc, but no one I talk to seems aware of it. As a native English speaker, we use "few" to mean "not many" and usually insert an "a" because it seems necessary. But not because it means anything different to us. Neither myself nor my mother (who is 70) were taught differently in school, and we were schooled in 2 different states. No doubt some grammar book teaches the definitions you give above, and it was probably used that way years ago, but languages keep changing....
I was taught that "a few, a little" means "some", not few of something. This is easy to me, because we say the same in Italian un po' di = some; poco ... = insufficient quantity. I admit it is a wrong point of view, but, from the perspective of a foreigner, the loss of such expressions is disappointing, reflecting a downgrade of the language.
Actually, we have several similar words. Мало, немного or немножко, несколько. Nouns in Russian can be countable and uncountable. Лук in this case is uncountable, so you can say мало or немного, but it is hard to get the difference even for a native speaker. Roughly, «У нас мало лука» means: «We run out of onions. Buy some more», while «У нас немного лука» means «We don't have much onions, but we still can cook something». Несколько is used for countable nouns and mean «some» or «few». You can say «у нас несколько луковиц», it is neutral and doesn't content any additional information. The question «Do you have any onions» is better to be translated as «У вас есть лук?/Есть ли у вас лук?»
Thanks so much for the explanation. I still can't get that you find that "not many" (so denying you have a lot) is the same than "a few" (that involves accepting you have a little). I imagine it should be similar like in height: being not so tall shouldn't mean you are short, or being not so short shouldn't mean you are tall. But I will asume it's a cultural difference.
"a few" and "a little" are definitely far from what you need. We only accept translations with "few", "little" and negative sentences with "not many/not much/not a lot of":
У меня мало времени → I have little time (a bit formal) / I don't have much time.
Some native speakers of English say that with proper intonation "a few" may mean the same as "few". Well, how would anyone know that you mean this specific intonation?
The Russian мало is the opposite of много. That is, много means "many, a lot: even more than is realistically required" whereas мало is "few, little: not enough for something; less than desired". Of course, both assume that a person considers amounts that fall within some range "normal".
It is not a negation. It is an amount. Compare the use to the the following sentences:
- У меня много лука. = I've got many onions.
- У меня много кошек. = I've got many cats.
- У меня куча лука. = I've got loads of onions.
- У меня есть мешок лука. = I've got a sack of onions.
In Russian, berries and also onions, potatoes, carrots, and beetroots are all mass nouns. "Berries" are understood in a layman's definition, so they include a lot of different small fruits like strawberries, plums, cherries, currants, blueberries, cranberries, geans and so on.
In English, "few [things]" means such a sparsity of items that there are almost none to be had, and certainly none to be shared.
"A few [things]" also indicates a sparsity of items, but connotes some greater amount than "few", so that there might be enough to share.
"We have few (мало) onions, and you can't have any of them because we need them all for ourselves."
"We have a few/some (немногго) onions, and I might be able to let you have one or two".
The thing that is confusing me is the немного looks like it's a combination of не + много = "not many", but the comments indicate that the moderators believe that "not many" is translated by мало rather than немного.
Also, In English, "not many" would lend itself much more to being equivalent to "some" or "a few", but the translation says that мало means "few" - which also means "not many".
I think that is wrong in English. "not many" is much more a synonym for "a few" and "some" than "few".
"Not many at all" or "almost none" is closer to what "few" means by itself.
That suggests to me that the translation of мало as "not many" is not correct.
Finally, the distinction between "few" and "a few" is so fine that it may be blurred or be non-existent, as either can be made to fit, depending on the context.
There is a difference between «У нас есть немного лука» and «Лука у нас не много». The former means “We have a few onions”, whereas the latter means “We have few onions [left]” / “We are running out of onions”. As you can see, the meaning changes depending on whether it is one word or two words and the intonation with which "немного"/"не много" is pronounced. Немного can also be used as an adverb meaning “a bit” / “a little”: «Я немного устал», «Подожди немного», «Отдохни немного» (“I’m a bit tired”, “Wait a bit”, “Take some rest”). However, when it is written as one word, немного never means “not much” or “not many” - to express that meaning, you have to write «не много». Obviously, it is not easy to distinguish between «немного» and «не много» in spoken language, so the word так is often inserted between не and много. The safest way to translate “not much” or “not many” into Russian is to say «не так много» or pronounce мно- in «не много» with a pitch fall.
That's informative, but if doesn't shed any light on where мало falls in this spectrum of sparsity. If «У нас есть немного лука» means "we have a few onions", in English that's synonymous with "we don't have many onions" - or less idiomatically, we have "not many" onions - which would be something like не много = "not many" - probably not good Russian grammar, but then etymology of words isn't a neat and tidy science. I find it difficult to believe that немного isn't a combination of of не + много, even though it doesn't actually mean "not many" in a strictly literal sense - but it certainly seems close.
Still, it's not at all clear how мало fits in here. Shady_arc appears to indicate that мало does not mean "few" but rather "a few" = "not many". That suggests that «У нас есть немного лука» means the same thing as «У нас есть мало лука» - that немного = мало in this context.
At least we've learned how to say "few onions" («Лука у нас немного»).
To this last point, I think your definitions fit well with my attempts to distinguish "few" from "a few". "Few" means something like "we're running out of".
Shady_arc is not write: мало does mean “few” (when used before countable nouns) or “little” (when is followed by an uncountable noun) , that’s what it means. “A few” can be translated into Russian as unstressed «несколько» (the stressed «несколько» is the equivalent of “several”) or «пара-тройка» or «два-три»/«две-три»/«три-четыре». «Немного» is a synonym of «мало» and they are used interchangeably, unless «немного» is followed by a verb - then it means “a bit”. Written as two words, «не много» means “not many” (fewer than expected) or “not just many” as in «не много, а очень много» (not just many, but a huge number). Being hard to distinguish from «немного», «не много» is not used very often, phrases like «не очень много» or «не так уж много» being more preferable. “We’re running out of” = «У нас кончается/кончаются». The phrase «мне мало + Gen case» means “I’m not happy with...”/“I want more...”. «Немало» means “quite a lot”/“quite a few”.