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Is there any obvious difference between little and small?

A couple of examples:

  • Big car vs. small (or little) car
  • You have to pay just a small (or little) amount for such a wonderful item

Can I use those words interchangeably or are there any rules allowing only one of the words?

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3 Answers 3

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As indicated by narx's answer to a similar question on ELU (English Language & Usage, ELL's "sister site" aimed primarily at linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts), only little can be used as an unqualified noun to mean a small amount (where adjectival small needs an explicit noun, such as amount or quantity).

The other interesting point made about little there is that in...

1: I have a little experience teaching English.
2: I have little experience teaching English.

...the two sentences have almost opposite meanings - #1 implies you have at least some experience, whereas #2 implies very little (perhaps almost none). In fact, #1 is often used somewhat facetiously to imply you actually have a lot of whatever is being spoken of.


Apart from the above distinctions, there's also (as kiamlaluno points out) the fact that little often carries more "affectionate" connotations than small. And from BBC Learning English, little is more common in the sense not much when coupled with abstract nouns such as hope, chance, change, effect, use and point.

In most other contexts, there's little to choose between the two words. Use whichever you like.

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Little can be used to refer to something that is small in size, amount, or degree, but it is also used as affectionate way. little puppy dog doesn't necessarily mean the puppy is small.
When it is used for people, little could also mean younger, as in my little brother.

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    As for little meaning younger, the oldest of my three daughters is also the shortest. When her younger sister passed her in height, we started a family quip: "Rachel has two little sisters... and so does Elizabeth."
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:03
  • The word "little" modifies "puppy dog", it means exactly that the puppy is particularly small, unless it is said jokingly of a Great Dane or Doberman. In the phrase "little old man", it can either mean the elderly man is short in stature or it is an insult You little old man suggesting that the person is insignificant or contemptible.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 24, 2021 at 6:59
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To complement the answers of FumbleFingers and apaderno (kiamlaluno), it's worth noting those instances when little is used to denote a personality trait.

  • little/small dog

In this example the adjectives “little” and “small” are interchangeable, they modify the noun dog. It means the dog is particularly small, unless it is said jokingly of a Great Dane or Doberman.

  • little/small boy(s)
  • little/small girl(s)
  • little/small children

These examples invariably refer to young children but in the following cases, the meaning changes, and quite significantly too

  • little old man

In the common expression "little old man", we are referring to either an elderly man who is short in stature, e.g. “He was a little old man who lived alone” or as an insult, e.g “You little old man” suggesting that the person (who could even be middle-aged) is insignificant and contemptible.

This expression – note the obligatory definite article – is often used in the US and refers to the common person, the everyman who has little (it's never small!) political power or status.

  • small man

Depending on context, it can either suggest that the man is small in height and build or his position and role in life is trivial, e.g ”He's just a small man in a small business.”

  • little old lady

On the other hand, the expression little old lady evokes an elderly sometimes frail woman, who might even have a cheerful disposition, e.g. "She was a sweet little old lady”.

Google Ngram shows that the expression "little old lady” is far more common in print than its equivalent "little old woman” or when "little" is switched with "small”.

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In the end, the choice between small and little often depends on context.

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