Little vs. Small

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

Winston Churchill, a British politician, army officer, and writer

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Aesop, a Greek fabulist and storyteller

“Little” and “small” are some of the first words English learners learn. At first, the adjectives seem to be absolute synonyms. But the more you learn, the more you understand that there is no such thing as absolute synonyms. So, how exactly are the words similar and different? Read on to clear up any confusion…

LITTLE

First of all, little is not always an adjective. It may be a determiner and an adverb as well.  See the different functions of “little” below:

Part of speech Meaning Examples
Adjective Small in size (little is slightly more informal than “small”)

 

There is a little group of islands to the west.

 

Small in a pleasant/attractive way

 

I dream of a little house by the sea.

 

Young (child)

 

She is just a little girl.

 

Quick (sound/gesture)

 

I heard a little laugh.

 

Not serious/important Don’t let little things get you worried.
Adverb Not often

 

They speak very little these days.

 

(a little) for a short time

 

I just want to read a little.
(a little/a little bit) to a small degree I was a little bit afraid.
Determiner A very small amount

 

We’ve got too little time.

I have so little money.

I get very little sleep.

Little of our time is spent on really important things. (“little” is a quantifier here)

Little is known about his past. (“Little” is a pronoun here)

Note that “little” has a 2 comparative and superlative forms:

Little – less – the least:

  • You should smoke less.
  • I’m trying to use less water.
  • I need to spend less and save more.
  • Less of the money was spent on this.
  • Less than half an hour later he came up to me.
  • In this country, poverty is less of a problem.
  • It’s less a career than a vocation.
  • I am the least experienced in my team.
  • He needs your help the least.
  • I like cheese with the least fat.

Little – littler – the littlest (only for the adjective “little”; spoken English):

  • They can misinterpret the littlest things.
  • They’re god’s littlest angels.
  • He’s a little fellow, littler than the others.
  • If she was littler, say six or seven, it would be possible for her to take part in the contest.

Note that the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective “little” (that is, “littler” and “littlest”) are sometimes used in colloquial English. If you want to sound neutral, you may use the adjective “lesser” to indicate something that is smaller in extent, degree, or amount or to refer to something or someone that is less important:

  • Any medication is affected to a greater or lesser extent by many factors.
  • Similar insurance programs exist in developing countries, but they are of lesser importance.
  • On a lesser scale, they also buy coffee and timber.

SMALL

Part of speech Meaning Example
Adjective Not large physically He is small.

There is a small park in this area.

Use a small amount of plaster.

(of a group/quantity) consisting of only a few people/things I see a small group of tourists.

There is a small number of new houses.

(of a child) very young I have a small child.
Not significant/great We need a few small changes.

This detail is not small.

She’s a small actress.

Small things amuse small minds.

(of a company/business) employing only a few people and having only a few clients It’s a small company.

Their business is small, but they are OK with that.

As you might have noticed, sometimes “small” and “little” are interchangeable. They are when they mean not large, young (kid) and not important/significant/great in particular:

  • It’s a little/small group of islands.
  • She’s a little/small girl.
  • Tell me about your small/little problems.

PHRASES

Of course, some things are just to be remembered:

  • To look/feel small (meaning: to feel stupid/ashamed): Your words make me feel so small!
  • In the small hours = in the early hours (meaning: in the early morning / after midnight): Night clubs have a variety of shows in the small hours.
  • Little by little (meaning: very gradually): Little by little, you’ll think about it less.
  • The small of one’s back (meaning: the bottom part of one’s back): She has a tattoo on the small of her back.
  • It’s a small world (meaning: said to show your surprise that people/events in different places are connected): Do you know my mother? It’s a small world!
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