This is the headline of an online article:

Tasty Fish Grow Smaller in Warming Ocean.

And this is from Google search:

Why Belgian coins grow smaller.

Growing is all about increasing in size and getting bigger while smaller is just the opposite, however, English seems to permit the two words to come together. How is this possible?

  • 4
    Certain comedians, such as George Carlin loved to joke about these kind of inconsistencies in the English language. Believe me, we know very well this doesn't make sense :)
    – Andrew
    Nov 19, 2018 at 17:11
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    @Andrew It does make sense, though. Just not when you choose to interpret it literally, which people don't typically do.
    – user91988
    Nov 19, 2018 at 17:32
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    @only_pro sure, but only if you consider all (and sometimes contradictory) meanings. It doesn't mean they don't also sound superficially silly.
    – Andrew
    Nov 19, 2018 at 17:35
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    Good grief, OP's source is clearly confused. Military intelligence reveals that only jumbo shrimp grow smaller during times of civil war in aquatic landscapes (but still taste awfully good)
    – A C
    Nov 21, 2018 at 4:05
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    "Grow smaller" can also mean that it grows to a smaller size than previous fish did. It "Grow[s] [to a] smaller [size]". Nov 21, 2018 at 14:20

6 Answers 6


Oxford lists three primary meanings for the word grow. The first two reflect what we often immediately think of when we think about growing:

grow (v.) to undergo natural development by increasing in size and changing physically

grow (v.) to become larger or greater over a period of time; to increase

It’s the third meaning, though, that provides the key to your apparent oxymoron:

grow (v.) to become, gradually or increasingly : sharing our experiences we grew braver

So, if the number of fish are gradually becoming diminished, then a headline might say:

Tasty Fish Grow Smaller in Warming Ocean

More likely, though, is probably referring to the size of the fish, if the gradually-warming ocean is causing the fish to become smaller over time (or, perhaps more accurately, "causing the average size of adult fish to become smaller over time").

  • 1
    I think you should be clearer that these are three meanings you think are relevant to the question, not that they are the only three meanings. Nov 19, 2018 at 19:20
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    If it’s the number of fish that’s decreasing, you would never use ‘smaller’ at all. You might say the fish are growing fewer, or that the number of fish is growing smaller, but not that the fish are growing smaller – that refers unambiguously to their size. Nov 19, 2018 at 19:22
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    @Janus - You're right; I was assuming that a headline writer might have left off the "Number of" to keep the headline short. I've reworded my answer to make it a bit less misleading. Nice catch.
    – J.R.
    Nov 19, 2018 at 19:52
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    "causing the fish to become smaller over time" - You might better say, "causing the average size of adult fish to become smaller over time" Nov 20, 2018 at 17:34
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    @WhatRoughBeast Agreed. To me, "become smaller" makes it sound more like the individual fish are shrinking in size, which I doubt is what the author meant (though the original headline could also be interpreted that way).
    – p.s.w.g
    Nov 20, 2018 at 23:36

Grow and smaller aren't linked the way you are interpreting it. The sentence is saying that fish that used to reach a certain size in adulthood aren't growing that big in a warmer ocean, they are smaller than their predecessors.

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    This sentence aside, google shows many other sentences with grow smaller meaning become smaller or get smaller. For example, "Why Belgian coins grow smaller."
    – Sara
    Nov 19, 2018 at 12:47
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    This was my assumption too. As it is a headline, to reduce the length, it may be missing implied words. "...fish grow to a smaller size in..." would be more correct in this case.
    – Baldrickk
    Nov 20, 2018 at 11:57
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    I agree that's what it means, but they could definitely have expressed it better, e.g. "Don't grow as large".
    – Hellion
    Nov 20, 2018 at 18:04

As well as the common usage of grow to increase in size it can also be used to indicate a gradual or progressive change of state for example

As night fell it began to grow colder.

Having said that using the phrase 'grow' smaller is probably best avoided as it is a bit ambiguous as it is not clear whether it means they actually shrink or they just grow more slowly, reach a smaller maximum size or indicating a trend in in the population as a whole over time.

Although this is often the case with headlines and often the ambiguity is deliberate in order to make a story sound more interesting or sensational than it really is.


I don’t see any conflict in it.

Yes, “to grow” means get bigger and they are! but consider that they grow less than expected.

Tasty Fish Grow Smaller [than it is expected] in Warming Ocean.


I think you can use 'grow', since there is an increase of 'smallness' compared to a previous state. A different argument is: 'grow smaller' does not mean a big fish turns small. It just means that fish now have a slower growth rate, or that they stop growing earlier at all. Nevertheless you have the act of 'growing' from tadpole to fish. This is what 'grow' refers to, it is not a general phenomena that happens to all fish.

So, long and thanks for all the fish :)


What you are referring to is the basic form of speech that we use informally but is not correct ."Things can shrink smaller" is the correct usage .Also sometimes "grow smaller" can be used as an oxymoron in a poem .

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    Hmmm... Journalists don't seem to have any problem using the phase grow smaller in newspaper articles. Moreover, in books, the phrase shrink smaller is dwarfed by the expression grow smaller, and I doubt that's all oxymoronic poetry.
    – J.R.
    Nov 20, 2018 at 14:59
  • I think that its used to spice the sentences up ....
    – SLADE
    Nov 20, 2018 at 15:06
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    As mobile computing devices grow smaller and as in-car computing platforms become more common, we must augment traditional methods of human-computer interaction (from the abstract of "Pervasive Speech Recognition"). The gist of Moore's law is that as time passes, circuits will grow smaller in size, but bigger in functions due to the more efficient packing method to accommodate more components that are tinier (from "Assessment of High Temperature, Lead Free Paste Alternatives for Semiconductor Packaging"). Sorry, but I don't think those authors are being cute or "spicing things up".
    – J.R.
    Nov 20, 2018 at 15:21

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