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I know that you can respond to these questions either with "somewhat" or "a little bit"

Do you like sports cars?
Do you watch TV?
Are you sad because he left?

and that you can only respond with "a little bit" to these questions

How much sugar do you want in your tea?
Should I give you more cake?
Is there anything else I can do for you?

but I don't understand why. When can you use "somewhat" and when can you use "a little bit"?

Are there any questions that you can answer with "somewhat" but not "a little bit"?

  • 1
    It's because somewhat is really an adverbial/adjectival form meaning to a certain extent, rather, whereas a little bit is essentially a noun form (as indicated by the indefinite article). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 30 '14 at 20:45
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Here we come to the subtle difference between degree and quantity.

If you are learning to cook something from someone, and they tell you to put the pan on the stove and turn it on, you might ask them, "How hot does it need to be?"

They might respond,

"It needs to be very hot."

or they might respond,

"It needs a lot of heat."

It needs to be very hot is an expression of degree, it describes the degree to which something is hot.

It needs a lot of heat, which means the exact same thing, expresses that idea in terms of quantity. It treats hotness as a thing one can have more or less of.

Questions about degree (or questions that can be construed to be about degree) can be answered either with expressions of degree, like somewhat or with expressions of quantity, like a little bit. The reverse is not true of questions about quantity: they cannot be answered with expressions of degree.

Your first examples are all questions which can be answered in terms of degree, by (notice this!) interpreting the question not as it is literally stated (all three are boolean and the only logical literal answers are yes and no!) but as "To what extent do..."

Thus

Do you like sports cars?

Is taken to mean

To what extent do you like sports cars?

And that is how the answer can be Somewhat.

But notice that you can't actually interpret

How much sugar do you want in your tea?

as a "to what..." question and preserve what was asked. The closest you can come is,

To what extent do you want sugar in your tea?

That asks the extent of the wanting, not the quantity of the sugar, which is what was being asked. This question will not elicit answer the question "one lump or two?"

And this is why using an expression of degree, which is what somewhat is, makes no sense.

Likewise,

Should I give you more cake?

Can be answered with extent only as a form of wit:

Yes, you very, very much should give me more cake.

Mmmm. Cake. The question about the cake, like that about the sugar, is inquiring about quantity, and cannot be answered with degree.

Is there anything else I can do for you?

Similarly, can only become,

To what extent is there anything else I can do for you?

which while a similar question, isn't what is being asked. The real question being asked is,

What else, if anything, can I do for you?

This doesn't even take a quantity, but a list. (I.e., it doesn't return a scalar float, it returns an array of strings.) If you answer a little bit, you are characterizing your answer in anticipation of giving it, but you haven't actually answered. You will have the other person's attention to spell out what you're thinking constitutes a little bit, but you have not yet told them.

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You may have seen survey questions asking for a range of agreement, such as this one:

ELL is helping me improve my English:
( ) Strongly agree ( ) Agree ( ) Disagree ( ) Strongly Disagree

Questions like this are matters of opinion, and you can use "somewhat" or "a little bit" to describe your level of emotional agreement. Examples would include:

Do you enjoy sugar in your tea?
How much are you looking forward to some cake?

However, other questions don't ask about levels of disagreement; they ask about a more discrete and less abstract quantity. These would include questions that ask:

How many sports cars do you own?
How much TV do you watch each week?

In these cases, the word somewhat won't do, because, unlike a little bit, somewhat can't be used to represent a small quantity.

If you can answer with "a little bit", but can't answer with "somewhat", then there's a good chance the question requires some quantitative amount, as opposed to asking for some level on a scale.

On the other hand, when both "a little bit" and "somewhat" can be used synonymously, then the question is probably about something that could be answered on a Likert-type scale.

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