What is the difference between “I have little money” and “I have a little money”?

Are they the same?

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    Also compare to "I only have a little money", which means something closer to little than a little. – Tim S. Oct 1 '14 at 20:13

There is a difference in meaning between “a little” and “little”.

The meaning of “a little” is positive. It means some or a small amount, such as, “I have a little money.”, “He made a little progress.”, etc.

On the other hand, “little” has a negative meaning. It means an extremely small amount or an amount that is less than expected or wished for, as in, “I have little money.”, “He made little progress.”, etc.

If we look at these sentences, the difference between “a little” and “little” will come across easily. The former may be satisfactory for a particular purpose while the latter is not.

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    The difference may come across easily for a native speaker, but I'd guess it wouldn't for someone just learning English, who hasn't heard both (or even one) form before. – Tim S. Oct 1 '14 at 20:12
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    "a little" is positive: greater than zero. "little" is negative: less than "much". – GalacticCowboy Oct 1 '14 at 20:42
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    It might be worth noting that especially when it comes to money "a little" is frequently a euphemism. "Do you think we can afford a house in central London? I have a little money set aside." actually implies I have rather a lot of money. (Or an extremely poor understanding of the London housing market!). The key thing, I think, is that "a little money" is "maybe enough money [to do whatever we're talking about]" wheras "little money" is "probably not enough money [to do whatever we're talking about]". – Iain Galloway Oct 2 '14 at 9:27
  • +1, but to nitpick: the two phrases may well describe the same situation -- a small amount of progress was made, a small amount of money is available -- it's the connotations that differ. As you say, "a little" is optimistic, while "little" is pessimistic. Thus, "he made a little progress" could express belief that progress is possible, while "he made little progress" could express the belief that progress is not actually possible. – Wayne Oct 2 '14 at 12:22
  • @Tyler, thanks for your nice editing, giving a good shape to my answer. – Khan Oct 3 '14 at 2:06

Quite different.

"I have little money" implies you have a very small amount of money, and usually less than you'd want to. For example, when your kid asks you to buy him a toy, and you reply "Sorry, I have little money", it implies you can't afford the toy.

"I have a little money" implies that while the sum in question might not be big (relatively speaking), it's good enough. When you tell your kid "Well, I have a little money", you're affirming that you can, in fact, afford the toy.

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  • @Martha - and to think I've just answered a question on that very topic a few days ago ;) – Maciej Stachowski Oct 1 '14 at 20:41
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    You mean the "can I have that toy?" question — oh, I get those every day… – Nicholas Shanks Oct 2 '14 at 9:06

I have little money = I am not a rich man.

I have a little money can mean:

a. I have some money on my person now (e.g. in my pocket) but not very much.

b. I have a rather large sum of money available if I should need it (i.e. litotes/understatement)

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  • Part b of this answer, in particular, needs more upvoting. It's counterintuitive, but, yes, in many cases, "I have a little money" actually means "I have a sum of money substantial enough to address [something from the context]." Like "I can't make my rent. [response] I have a little money." But in another context "How can you possibly afford to retire there? It's so expensive! [response] I have a little money that my father left me." And what they mean in these cases is essentially that they have enough money for the identified need. – msouth Oct 2 '14 at 8:25
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    For some reason, a little money suggests inherited wealth to me too, @msouth, but that could be merely because it's the sort of phrase I associate with Agatha Christie novels. – TRiG Oct 2 '14 at 10:00

"little money" means not much as in "I can't afford to buy a new dress. I have little money."

"a little money" can be positive as in "What about going to the cinema? I would invite you. I have a little money I can spend."

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Using the article a/an has a subtle effect on the meaning of the sentence.

Below are my thoughts on your question.

  • "I have little money" - It means you hardly have money.
  • "I have a little money" - It means you have some money.
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    Just to add - in some cases "a little money" could actually mean quite a lot, as it is common for people to use it to mean "I have enough to do x". For example, A: "Wouldn't it be great to have a summer home?" B: "I have a little money set aside. Let's buy one!" – michelle Oct 1 '14 at 14:38
  • @michelle - Thanks for the comment, but I disagree with you. When in the world the word little means quite a lot? Instead of saying "I have a little money set aside..." why not say "I have enough money set aside..."? – jim_nr Oct 2 '14 at 5:04
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    @jim_nr, who knows why, but that's what people say. Language is like that. – nekomatic Oct 2 '14 at 7:52
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    In fact it's worth saying that 'a little' is quite commonly used in understatement, at least in British English. 'I'm a little concerned about...' can easily mean 'I'm seriously worried about...'. See those Buzzfeed lists of 'Things British People Say And What They Actually Mean' for more examples. – nekomatic Oct 2 '14 at 7:56
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    See other answers and comments - it appears that other people understand the meaning a little differently to you. ;-) – nekomatic Oct 2 '14 at 10:35

The other answers are all correct, but they omit one detail that might clarify the usage: "a little" is a shortened version of the full phrase "a little bit of."

Therefore, the phrase "I have a little money" is in fact an abbreviation of "I have a little bit of money." Hopefully this will make it more clear as to why it is a positive amount: it means you may not have much, but you do in fact have some. You have a bit (syn. portion or amount) of money, you just have "a little bit."

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    That's a valid paraphrase, but it's not actually a shortening of that phrase. – snailplane Oct 2 '14 at 20:33

So complicated!

a little = some

little = not much

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  • I like this short explanation, but unfortunately 1) It adds nothing to the other answers. and 2) i'm not sure it will be helpful to other learners. However, I do not think it's delete-worthy. – M.A.R. Sep 2 '15 at 18:44

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