Little vs. small

Could you please tell me if these two adjectives are totally interchangeable or if there is a nuance to be taken into account?

Thank you.

Hi Conchita,

No to your first question and yes to your second. Now give me a couple of weeks to work it out!



I’m glad nobody has thought of asking me that as yet, but you never know!

Where they are otherwise synonymous in meaning and function the same grammatically, I personally think it’s more a matter of historical collocation than anything else:

little black book
little brother
Little Women
small scale production
a little bit
small town
a small amount
small business
small quantities
small talk
a small world

Swan suggests that while small refers only to size (a small brandy), little also expresses some kind of emotion (a little bastard). Also that in BrE, little is unusual in predicative position while it is normal in AmE.

There are of course many situations in which only one will do, semantically and grammatically:

little doubt
little one can do
small-arm sales
a little harder


Hi Conchita,

I’ve chickened out of my offer to find examples and instead I’m attaching entries from the British National Corpus (a sample of some 100 million words taken from current written and spoken English):

Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 43118 found…

A0U 429 It was her nail scissors that she’d been searching for days, lost under the hearthrug and pressing into her hip; and the cry was also her virginity, small and bewildered and gone.

A16 1689 If possible, raise the pump on bricks, or a small plinth.

A6J 795 Maggie feels no doubt about that: so small a word, so small and so necessary a word is bound to survive, to slip through the net of destruction that she and Fenna --; no, that she herself, alone --; will loose on the cold sky tonight.

A6R 1220 Best area for the small boat angler is the Exe near the Dawlish Warren spit.

A6W 1059 two small seats for children are fitted in the back, and an adult, sitting sideways, could be packed in for short trips…

A7L 103 It didn’t require much capital to manufacture the equipment or produce the short films, and for some time it was possible for small craftsmen on the British model to keep up with the big boys in France or the US.

ABS 730 Unfortunately, this is not to be, since it transpires that the gentleman from British Rail was nothing short of a duplicitous cad; there are no small compartments, just open-plan carriages too large to be defended by even the most outrageous behaviour, so I slump sullenly into a corner, wallowing in layers of dust and grime that would easily qualify for a Quentin Crisp kitemark, waiting for the guard to switch on the heat and the lights, preparatory to the departure of the Sir John.

AMM 1519 The horsetails reproduce by means of spores, which are born in small cone-like structures at the tip of the branches or on modified shoots.

B1H 119 D. At the time when the population started to increase rapidly, most people lived in small villages and worked on farms.

B1H 2188 This is done in both large factories and small workshops.

BMK 203 As a stores manager, Horne finds that the quantity of 1,1,1 used in labs is small.

BMX 1343 They heard no more from behind them and as the small amount of sky they could see between the tree-tops was clouded over there was nothing to give them direction.

BNY 1180 Weasels, in any case, very rarely tackle mature rabbits, preferring to concentrate on the very small ones and on even smaller mammals.

C8B 629 While the chances of a woman developing rheumatoid arthritis after a delivery are small, the researchers have nevertheless provided new evidence that hormones do play a role in some cases of the disease.

C8P 431 1 small gherkin halved

CEW 889 The small orchestra was `;feeble’;, and Mozart wrote sadly to his wife that the concert had been a great success from the point of view of honour and glory, but a complete financial flop.

CHL 915 As a consequence of its scope, its vague wording, and its proposed method of enforcement, which was mainly civil, it applied to very little business conduct and was, as discussed earlier, more suitable for the prosecution of labour and small businessmen than large manufacturers.

CK0 312 There was an open red screen across the open door of one of the two small wards.

CKD 408 Craig ran his hand through his hair so that it sprung into small curls giving him a rakish appearance.

CLT 472 A small hole just large enough to insert the airline should be drilled into the back of the elbow.

CML 1634 At least out of the small side&rehy;windows he would not have seen the effects on the aircraft of those gusting winds.

CRJ 1172 We found a few more smaller parties near the Benelips and Filla, two small grass-topped islets which form the south-western extremity of Out Skerries.

EA4 640 The suite of small rooms which constitutes NISW’s embryonic International Centre does not look like a command station for the international social work jet set.

EDK 176 The process works (sometimes) because the immune system can cope with small numbers of viruses, although this was unknown in immunological terms at the time.

EUS 1060 An instruction might therefore explicitly specify three store locations; an example of such a three-address instruction is Add the contents of store addresses A and B, depositing the result at store address C In early computers such a technique was feasible, since store capacities (and therefore operand field lengths) were small, and addressing mode fields were often absent.

F99 982 She could remember the old pier, too --; falling down by then, too unsafe for anyone to be allowed on it --; but in Gran’s day bustling and lively with peep shows, a funfair, and a small steam railway running the entire length.

G0W 1364 It assumes in students lengthy exposure to the study of English and some experience (which may be quite limited) of teaching and coaching individuals and small groups.

G19 1363 He argues that the `;local state’; is not simply the national state writ small, and that a general theory of the state cannot be applied to the local level.

GSX 588 In 1890 her father moved to the parish of Kirkby Lonsdale and it was from his vicarage in this small town that Margaret, with the help of her lifelong friend Lilian Harris (died 1950), ran the Guild until 1908.

GVX 818 It is also the case that, in practice, social purpose Adult Education has frequently concerned itself exclusively with the small minority of politically active, leftist members of the working class, usually, though not always, via trade union education.

H0U 767 Taking the specific volume at any temperature &formula; the specific volume at temperature T will be &formula; where &formula;T is the coefficient of thermal expansion at temperature T. This equation is true for small temperature increments.

H7E 673 He too was Australian and had watched Eva’s progress since she was a small girl.

H8K 1282 The approximate solution of this equation, when the small term on the right-hand side is neglected, is where b and &agr; are constants of integration.

H99 854 Today, the quantity of literature in the class 100 Philosophy is small compared with that in, say, the 500 Science, or 600 Technology classes.

HA7 2858 They had belonged to her mother --; silver and marcasite wings with a small pendant pearl; not valuable, but of personal importance.

HAJ 1182 The 449 local authorities in England and Wales together with a small number of statutory joint bodies are responsible for the provision to their communities of a range of important services.

HGY 461 She could make just a small detour…

HH5 1822 There was a small gallery at one end which musicians would use and, at the other, against a wooden panelled wall, the dais and high table.

HL4 5172 Hafez al-Assad, who with members of his small Alawite clan has dominated Syrian politics for two decades.

HR4 1944 Arnie didn’t think that big was beautiful he believed small was secure-and Crocus had to be secure; the blowback potential was massive.

HRJ 661 The domestic events of the spring of 1937 were not without importance but he took small part in them, and a cursory reading of the Cabinet minutes might suggest that he had already retired in mind.

HTV 1357 For the small producer, subcontracting to a TNC, the system is prohibitively expensive and the expertise required to run it is considerable, so it tends to be controlled by TNCs, or by the gargantuan retailers that they supply.

HU4 506 The pH probe was passed either nasogastrically or orogastrically with a small amount of water.

HW8 652 The interior of the bus was lit only by a small torch made to look like an old lamp, the type you see in Westerns, and from what I could see I was glad there was no more light.

HWH 1781 If the tax-transfer system creates a budget constraint that is nonlinear and non-convex, then it is possible for more than one tangency with an indifference curve to arise, and indeed for the same indifference curve to have two tangency points, and small changes in the budget constraint can cause the chosen number of hours to jump from one segment of the constraint to another (e.g.points 6 and 7 in Fig. 12-;2©).

HWS 4453 From the small number of neonatal stomachs examined it seems that the distribution of parietal cells remains constant after birth, and so it appears reasonable to assume that a definite change in distribution of parietal cells must occur during the third trimester.

HWT 257 (3) Oesophageal sensitivity to acid was preserved in patients with impaired peristalsis and oesophagitis. (4) Reflux symptoms lasted longer in patients with prolonged oesophageal acid exposure but were still reported for a small fraction of the total acid exposure time.

J54 1613 On the landing, she led the way to the small room she had been using as her office.

K5D 4956 Brian Say, 44, had been allowed to sleep undisturbed during the night at his home at Craigmuir Croft, in the small village of Ythanbank, near Ellon.

K97 7429 A CONFEDERATION of British Industry survey out this morning shows that new orders and output among small manufacturing firms have declined at a greater rate than expected since July.

Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 62638 found…

A0N 2687 A quarter of an hour later he stood alone at the edge of the High Street with as little notion of his next steps as a soldier discharged in Madras with the whole of India, Arabia, and Africa lying between him and his homeland.

A65 1909 I was a little disappointed by the grip even on wet and damp rock by the rubber-cleated and stud-pattern sole.

A6E 43 When someone bought something you put their money and their sales docket in a little aluminium container, placing it in a tube by your counter.

AAX 230 WHAT I do know is that people like Havel have been getting a little impatient with those relishing pieces appearing lately in the American press that say, roughly: `;Right, you guys over there have had your romantic Ruritanian fun and games with revolution and dancing in the streets.

AC5 1092 Will you try a little porridge with some honey, Dorothy, my dear?

AD2 1033 The DUP was formed with the intention of increasing the non-evangelical element in the movement, but it had little initial success in broadening the recruiting base.

ALC 1146 Ali but 4% of the farms in Norway were under 50 acres and there is little movement in and out of the industry.

AMB 2078 The only way into his protective case was through a little trap door he kept locked night and day.

APH 243 Prior to the development of Wagner’s (1976) theory, the role of contextual factors had received little attention (but see Anderson, O’Farrell, Formica, and Caponigri 1969; Anderson, Wolf, and Sullivan 1969; Dexter and Merill 1969).

B3H 531 In his foregrounds he liked `;trees, which with a little scholastic management, will exhibit on paper many rare assemblages’;.

B7C 646 These manufacturers have pushed up the resolution a little by breaking the display into submatrices, addressed separately, but connected to give a unified picture.

BP0 2283 Now she seems to have little pain, and little hunger, although she takes what the boy gives her, and today, we have improved upon that.

C8A 1841 • Buy for durability; instead of settling for cheap plastic, spend a little more on something that will last.

C9W 756 All at once one of the birds --; it seemed enormous to the child, but may well have been as small as a sparrow --; flew into the air and fluttered past the pushchair, its wings actually brushing the little girl’s face.

CBF 10004 A spokesman said: `;The writers felt Demi was a little too soft.’;

CDW 88 The loss of confidence in the basic economic institutions of Western societies is based on the view that the results of the system bear little relation to certain norms of justice.

CGS 1297 Sometimes the `;tokens’; are simple ticks on a little notebook, but they can be milk bottle tops or counters or spent matches kept in a little bag.

CGT 1930 It may take a little while for the bowel motions to become settled into a regular pattern.

CJT 1442 Just a frail little thing, wasn’t she, the wind could have picked her up and tossed her away, yet she had demolished him as surely as if she had wielded a pick-axe handle to his belly.

CLW 727 The most recent studies suggest that more than a third of employers discriminate against black applicants for jobs, and that levels of discrimination are the same for Asian and Afro-Caribbean applicants, for men and women, and vary little between job categories, although previous studies have documented higher levels of racial discrimination in relation to unskilled manual jobs (Brown and Gay, 1985; Smith, 1977).

CMC 1374 How large they grow has little to do with what or how much they eat, but more to do with their status among other Orcs.

CR6 1042 A new little Ryan… a Ryan that your daughter is carrying inside her.’;

CTX 1315 A normal 220W power supply unit (PSU) was fitted, which is a little light in my view.

EFS 29 They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley;" but think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box.

EVK 776 Thus the new system may be an improvement but there is little evidence to support the view that the new committees exercise any real systematic control over the activities of government.

F9H 706 Behind a grey stone wall lay a little pool.

FBE 952 A little more needs to be said about the adjectives ;bold'; and;novel’; as applied to hypotheses and predictions respectively.

FNT 1030 She had been asking him about the little wooden cities which adorned the shelves in her room.

GVN 645 Can we expect individuals to enjoy equal rights and participation in their social lives and yet work under an authoritarian structure at the workplace that gives them little responsibility and allows them little scope for participation?

GWH 577 I was singing little Hareton to sleep when Catherine came in.

H7E 276 In 1843 he returned to England and took his little daughter back to Jamaica to join the rest of the family.

H8C 304 Apart from the system of secret diplomacy under his personal control which he developed after 1745 and which served merely to complicate and frustrate the foreign policies carried on by his ministers through regular channels, he took little interest in the machinery of government.

H9V 1302 With a little start, she looked up and glared at him.

H9V 1995 `;Don’t touch me!’; she yelled, and like a little wet and muddy wildcat she wrenched herself free of his grip.

HA6 2706 Prying into what doesn’t concern you, investigating in poky little corners.’;

HGM 2861 You might be his daughter only in name, but you’ve certainly learnt all his nasty, manipulative little tricks.

HH3 2371 But to write the word themselves Chinese children --; those spoilt and individualistic `;little emperors’;? --; will practice writing individual strokes for hours on end until they can get this horizontal or that vertical line exactly right.

HJH 3828 Women will bring little kids to the adventure playground and talk to each other instead of screaming over the walls of their backyards --; oh, piss off!’;

HR0 1469 So by the time an actual (although as it turned out farcical) landing took place in North Wales on 25 February, there was little gold in the chest to meet massive withdrawing.

HTU 5151 Ping went that little bell again.

HWP 173 Give me a hand, Francis --; get the stool out from under him; straighten him up a little.’;

J2G 202 But I will go into more of that a little later.

JXM 464 The Easter Conference, held in Blackpool, did little to solve the problem.

JY8 2616 `;You little fool!

JYF 2516 ;How?'; he repeated, but, even though she thought that he suddenly seemed a little on edge, and although he appeared to hesitate --; as if, most oddly, he was a little unsure, he then looked straight into her eyes and stated,;There have been countless instances when, because of you, I’ve found myself doing things which I wouldn’t have believed.

K5F 488 He can afford to draw back a little.

KB8 1710 Put your arm up a little bit till I can get this pulled down over your feet.

KP1 9726 And we’ve had one or two cold snaps, little cold snaps

KPE 48 What you good little girl.

KS6 48 The little jingle

Hope that helps


Thank you Alan and Mister Micawber for your exhaustive (to say the least!) replies to my trivial little question. I can see now that it was no small feat. Who would have thought that two insignificant little words would yield so much didactic material? And yet I still think that it’s one of those things in English (ever true to its reputation of being somewhat illogical) that eventually come with time and practice.

The adverb ‘a little’ is the easiest part for me and I think it can, as our guest suggested, be put aside. So I’ll leave it out of the ‘box’ labelled ‘tricky’.