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I've heard people say for example "It was too little too late". But isn't it more suitable to use "a" instead of "too" there?

English is not my first language so I am sorry if this is an obvious question

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    You're missing a comma, it should be: too little , too late – Mari-Lou A Oct 27 '14 at 9:09
  • Note that "too little, too late" is a specific idiom, it does not generalise to "too little, too xyz". You may very occasionally come across other adjectives in the final spot (so-and-so was too little, too early), but they will be making knowing and probably humorous reference to the original. Whereas "a little too xyz" is a general form (with a different sense, as outlined in Fraser Orr's answer). – walkytalky Oct 27 '14 at 9:09
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The two things mean something rather different. "Too little, too late" indicates there was two shortfalls, "a little too late" indicates there was one shortfall.

Effort on your homework was too little and too late.

Here the speaker is indicating both that there was too little effort on the homework and that that effort was applied too late.

Effort on your homework was a little too late.

Here the speaker indicates only that the effort was too late, and the lateness was only a little lateness. Nothing is said of the size of the effort, only its tardiness.

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I believe "too little too late" and "a little too late" express different things. "Too little too late" means not enough was done soon enough. "A little too late" means something did not happen when it was supposed to happen, but a little later. For example, if someone is sick and they do not get to a doctor until their sickness becomes fatal you could say it was too little too late. If an event was supposed to start at 6:00, but it does not start until 6:30 you could say it started a little late.

  • I think "too little too late" is wrong English. – rogermue Oct 27 '14 at 7:01
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    @rogermue always a good idea to check first before making bold statements idioms.thefreedictionary.com/too+little,+too+late – Mari-Lou A Oct 27 '14 at 9:07
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    @rogermue it is an idiomatic expression meaning the effort that someone put in was not enough and too late. Often heard when the rejected party of a relationship tries to make up for their past mistakes with a token effort. – Matt Ellen Oct 27 '14 at 9:07
  • Yes, I admit, I didn't know this idiom, but to recognize it as an idiom, it needs a comma. Without a comma, I would say, it is wrong English, or at least it is not clear what kind of structure that should be. – rogermue Oct 27 '14 at 10:02

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