Today we answer a question from Brigitte in France. She writes:
Could you tell me when to use little and when to use small?
Thank you – Brigitte, France.
Thank you for writing to us. The words “little” and “small” may seem to have the same meaning, but they do have different uses. First, we can look at them separately.
We use “little” to talk about a small or unimportant amount of something. For example:
There is a little dirt on the floor.
You can also use “little” to describe someone who is young, as in this example:
The little girls laughed at the dog.
Note that when the article “a” is placed before “little,” it means you do have some amount of a thing.
She has a little experience with political campaigns.
But without the article, “little” means you are lacking or missing something.
I have little need for swimwear in the winter.
There is an important difference between the words “little” and “small.” The difference is, when describing an amount, we use “little.” But when describing the size of someone or something, we use “small.” Here is an example:
The airplane seats are only a good fit for small adults.
Another different use of “small” is when comparing one thing with another.
My new phone is smaller than the old one.
It is not correct to compare amounts with the word “little.” In spoken English, people add the ending -est to “little” when comparing sizes. The word “littlest” is often used when describing sometime cute and very small.
That is the littlest puppy I have ever seen!
I hope that helps to answer your question, Brigitte.
And that’s Ask a Teacher.
What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m Jill Robbins.
And I’m Greg Stachel.
Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
article – n. grammar. a word (such as a, an, or the) that is used with a noun to show whether or not the noun refers to a specific person or thing
cute – adj. having a pleasing and usually youthful appearance
puppy – n. a young dog
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