Grammar Chaos: The Long and Short of Small versus Little

Posted on Nov 08, 2017

If you tend to confuse the terms small and little in a sentence, do not worry! Here are some tips, tricks, and templates for using these words correctly.

Big and small apple

As kids, we learned about the importance of opposites: tall and short, up and down, big and small... or little? Yes, there really is a difference between small and little. Sure, we know they both mean the same thing, which is “not big,” but how can we tell these two apart when using either in a sentence? What are their small (heh) yet significant traits?

Let’s keep it simple starting with small. This is used to describe something or someone’s physical size. As such, we can add that small only modifies nouns. This also goes for small’s comparative and superlative forms—smaller and smallest, respectively.

Examples of sentences with the proper use of small include the following:

  1. Because Adam is too small for his age, he gets teased a lot at school.
  2. This lizard is smaller than my shoe.

  3. The photographs are in the smallest box on my shelf.

However, in some cases, small can also be used to describe “uncountable” nouns, which cannot be counted or have no sense of amount. These include abstract words like amount or dose, among plenty others. Below are some helpful examples.

  1. This cake batter needs just a small amount of food coloring.
  2. As Mary Poppins says, just a small dose of sugar helps the medicine go down!

  3. A small helping of ice cream was all she needed to feel better again.

And what about little? Well, for one thing, little means the same as “young” when it comes to age (e.g., “little boy”). More often than not, little is used to describe adjectives rather than nouns. However, if little is indeed used to modify nouns, it does so with “uncountable” nouns more than “countable” nouns.

Here are some sample sentences with little in them:

  1. I saw two little girls in the hotel hallway.
  2. It’s a little strange to be dating your best friend’s ex.

  3. Riding a bike takes a little while to get used to.

Like small, little also has comparative and superlative forms, namely, littler and littlest, respectively, although they’re not used as often as smaller and smallest.

Remember: using either small or little in a sentence may look simple to do, but it’s no small feat. Just stick to these simple rules, and you’ll be mastering these words in little to no time!

Interested in more handy grammar rules? Check out our Grammar Chaos series on our 1-Hour Proofreading blog, and keep an eye out for updates!


Disclaimer: Image is not ours. Credit to the owner.

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