Handful, handfuls

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As a noun referring to (1) a small, undefined number or quantity, or (2) the amount that a hand can hold, handful is one word (and has one l). Handfuls is the conventional plural, meaning that it is the one listed in dictionaries and that appears most often in edited writing. Hands full might seem logical, especially in reference to actual hands, but it tends to give way to handfuls wherever the two words function together as a noun. For instance, one would say, “She has took handfuls of candy,” because what’s important here is not that her hands are full but rather that she took two small, undefined quantities of candy.

Where hands full does work, though, is where the two words don’t work so closely together and what’s important is the full hands and not the small quantity. For example, one might say, “He had his hands full taking care of the baby,” because hands and full don’t work together to denote a small, undefined quantity.


Spotify is one of just a handful of services that have tried to build a business around offering songs on demand for free. [Los Angeles Times]

Twombly for his part thrusts handfuls of paint in your face only to invite you into a mist, a dissolve, a trackless indeterminacy. [Guardian]

The 20-year-old is looking to establish himself within the top handful of sprinters in the world. [The Age]

“It’s cleaned up and we’re back,” she said, standing under a blue tarp as Austin grabbed handfuls of the brown beach sand. [Vancouver Sun]

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