Little and Small

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A reader asks,

Can you illustrate how “little” and “small” are correctly used?

As adjectives, little and small are often interchangeable, but sometimes one will not do in place of the other.

Either is used to describe people or things of reduced dimensions:

Last night I saw upon the stair/A little man who wasn’t there…

[The Little Woman] is a great and very inspiring book. I haven’t read anything like that in a long time. It’s a testimony of a small woman who changed the whole country of China…

Small is preferred when describing something concrete that is of less than the usual size, quantity, value, or importance:

Detective Swann showed us to a small room and then disappeared.

President Grover Norquist [said] that any short-term deficit hit is a small price to pay for structural changes that will generate big savings down the road.

Little often refers to concepts:

Getting proper Louisiana hunting licenses takes a little forethought.

The writer attempts analysis, but demonstrates little or no original thought or insight.

Most of these elements, however, are of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

Large is more frequently used than big to modify abstract nouns such as amount, proportion, quantity, size, sum, and volume:

A newly published study from NASA shows that Earth’s atmosphere contains an unexpectedly large amount of Carbon tetrachloride.

In certain contexts, little can mean miniature or “smaller than regular size”:

The kindergarten room was furnished with little tables and chairs.

The children were playing with little cars on the sidewalk.

Both little and small can indicate the state of being a child:

When I was little, I used to pretend I was invisible.
When I was small, I used to pretend I could fly.

But “This is my small sister” means that the sister is small in size, whereas “This is my little sister” means that the sister is younger than the speaker.

In statements of contrast, little is usually paired with big; small is usually paired with large.

The big boys wouldn’t let the little ones use the basketball.

Oklahoma companies, large and small, profit from training.


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4 thoughts on “Little and Small”

  1. @ Gabrielle: It may be, but it may be okay. Sometimes the doubling of a term, or pairing 2 similar terms serves as an intensifier, even if either of the single words would serve alone: teeny-tiny, teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, little little, tiny little, etc. They are idiomatic phrases, so the fact that they are technically redundant is passed over. You probably would not use this kind of language in formal writing, however.

  2. Obi,
    Neither is idiomatic.
    You could say, “Please let me salt my soup a little.”
    You could also say, “Please let me put a small amount of salt into my soup.”

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