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Kindly consider the following sentence:

This rise in sea level will have a dramatic effect on coastal cities and towns all over the world.

I was told that the adjective "dramatic" in this context means "big" (= big effect).

If this is correct, what is the difference between "dramatic" and "big" in terms of usage? In other words, what makes the author choose to use "dramatic" instead of "big" in this context?

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"Big" primarily refers to something's size. It's a generic and neutral word. There could be a big change in something and yet no one cares.

"Dramatic" also says something about the effect on someone's emotions upon observing something. Often it's used to mean big, but there's an implication that upon seeing the magnitude, people will be surprised or impressed. Often in addition to the magnitude, there's an implication that a dramatic change is sudden, unexpected, and perhaps unprecedented.

"Dramatic" is often used to refer to big changes, but not usually to big objects.

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