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Here’s a sentence which is open to two interpretations and therefore can’t be grammatical:

“This is a little used car”.

To avoid the ambiguity of the meaning, would it be enough just to insert a comma between the above two (maybe reversing the position of “used” and “little”) so that it would mean a used/second-hand car that is not large in size?

This is a little, used car.

This is a used, little car.

What is the way to emphasize that the car (no matter what its size is) has been used for a short time?

I’m thinking of using a hyphen:

This is a little-used car

But I’m not sure about whether it would be correct.

Anyway, being read aloud, both “a little, used” and “a little-used” to me, a non-native English speaker, sound pretty much alike.

Are there other ways of expressing the very same ideas in oral speech for them to be clearly understood?

An addition:

Not having received the answer so far, I feel like adding to my question the following:

From what I have been able to gather by now, one of the main functions of hyphens (separating words into parts being kept in mind) is combining separate words into a single word to clarify meanings, removing ambiguities from sentences. Gluing words together hyphens notify the reader that two or more elements in a sentence are linked.

At the GrammarBook.com site (Rule 5) there’s a recommendation never to hesitate to add a hyphen if it may solve a possible problem of ambiguity. In this regard, might a hyphen gluing “used” and “car” together (“This is a little used-car”) help solve the problem so that the meaning were “not large in size, used car”? If there’s a restriction (@stangdon in his comment says there is) on using hyphens to link an adjective and the noun it modifies, can’t it be ignored by writers for the sake of clarity?

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    Your examples are correct and good. Even in speech, there is a difference between "little-used" and "little, used". "Little-used" is pronounced like a single word of three syllables, with emphasis on "little". "Little, used" has a momentary pause between the words, and "used" would be stressed. But using less-ambiguous terms is more reliable. – fixer1234 Apr 20 '17 at 17:30
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    You're fine with the hyphen to indicate a car that has not been used much. Otherwise, there can be two interpretations: "A little, used car" (with comma) means a car that is both little and used. "A little used car" (no comma) means a car that is little by the standards applicable to used cars. In speech, a slight pause after "little" in the first of those would help disambiguate. And a slight emphasis on "used" in the latter example would help. – BillJ Apr 20 '17 at 18:25
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    I second the recommendation for a hyphen. It makes it clear that the two words are to be interpreted as one phrase. – stangdon Apr 20 '17 at 18:47
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    @Rompey - No, "a little used-car" doesn't make sense. little modifies the adjective used; that's why there can be a hyphen between them. But we don't put a hyphen between an adjective and the noun it modifies. – stangdon Apr 20 '17 at 19:39
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    @stangdon See my Ngram - if it doesn't make sense (which I agree with), why is it so prevalent? – Stephen S Apr 20 '17 at 22:27
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This is a little used car.

This is how I would usually write my sentence for a small car that is used.

This is a little, used car.

Same as above, with emphasis on its size.

This is a used, little car.

While only native speakers would "feel" this, this definitely feels wrong. This post supports this - condition comes after size in adjective order. (See the bullets in the top answer)

This is a little-used car.

This is how I would express a barely used car. I have seen and used this word myself. Note that there is a difference in pronunciation between "little-used" and "little used" - the pause between the words is more pronounced for the latter.

This is a little used-car.

I would never construct this sentence, and I have never seen it. It is very uncommon.

However

With that said, the data shows that I was right a hundred years ago, but currently, nothing I said really holds water. See attached Google Ngram, which shows all three of my points are wrong:

  • "little used" was previously very common but its usage is declining
  • "little-used" is relatively uncommon compared to "little used" - but "little used" has fallen quite rapidly
  • "used-car" was non-existent a hundred years ago, but has overtaken (!) "little-used" *note that this includes usages such as used-car dealer

Google Ngram Viewer

Ngram Source

  • Also - the spike of used-car around WWII is interesting. Anyone have an hypothesis? – Stephen S Apr 20 '17 at 22:25
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    During World War II, the major U.S. automakers switched to making airplanes, tanks, military trucks, and radar systems. People who would normally buy new cars were forced to buy used cars. – Jasper Apr 20 '17 at 22:38
  • Very good answer, indeed. Very close to what I've been looking for - let me think for a while if you get the cigar; -) Thanks awfully for the research you've done. – VictorB Apr 20 '17 at 22:41
  • @Rompey Sorry that my personal beliefs disagree with the research - I was so sure I was right, until I combined the Ngrams to put into my answer, and I noticed that I was dead wrong. – Stephen S Apr 20 '17 at 22:48
  • @StephenS - Here's a hyphenated noun "used-car". Can't it follow the adjective "little"? – VictorB Apr 21 '17 at 16:22
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No matter how you punctuate it, saying "little used car" will be ambiguous. There are common synonyms of "little" and "used" that can be combined without causing this confusion.

You can use an adverb that cannot also be used as an adjective. For example:

  • This is a barely used car.
  • This is a lightly used car.
  • This is a rarely used car.

You can indicate that the car is old, in a way that cannot be modified by an adverb that indicates extent. If the car is old, it is not new. If the car is not new, it is probably used. For example:

  • This is a little 2013 car.
  • This is a little Fiero. [Pontiac Fieros are not made anymore. And they were all fairly small.]

You can use an adjective that describes a noun, and cannot be used to modify an adjective. For example:

  • This is a small used car.

You can also use a compound word that incorporates one of your descriptors into the main noun. In the context of used cars, a creampuff is a lightly-used car, and a roadster is a particular kind of small car that is fun to drive.

  • This is a creampuff.
  • This is a small creampuff.
  • This is a little creampuff.
  • This is a used roadster.
  • Sure, there's always more than one way to skin a cat. Thanks for the "cream puff--I've put it down. – VictorB Apr 20 '17 at 22:50
  • Another is "lightly used." I think the best would be "this is a low-mileage small car." – Harukogirl Apr 21 '17 at 0:14

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