Two little words – or should I say two small words – that seem at first glance to mean just about the same thing. They’re both Germanic-derived words that have been in English longer than there’s been an English to be in. They even have some similarities of form: both have /l/, both have voiceless consonants (though the /t/ in little tends to be realized in many dialects – including mine – as more of a [d] as it releases into the /l/), both have double upright letters, both have two l’s. So what’s the difference? Is there any? Even a little?
Well, there’s one difference right there, of course: there are some usages each has that the other does not. A little is a little amount, and a small is an item of small size, for instance. You also can’t go small by small; it has to be little by little. Likewise, while both may seem opposites of big, only little is an opposite of much, and on the other hand one seldom hears little rather than small in counterpoise to great (all creatures great and little?).
There are differences in sound, too – especially the number of syllables, which will often make the difference in choice, depending on the rhythm of the phrase (twinkle, twinkle, small star?). Differences in rhyme and in similar-sounding words add to the flavour differentiation: little plays with middle, tweedle, beetle, puddle, battle, bottle, twitter, glitter, jot and tittle, and so on, while small plays with tall, all, pall, call, hall, wall, fall, gall, mall, and so on, plus the various sm words to greater or lesser extent.
The best way to differentiate these two words is to see what they are – and aren’t – served with. Let’s start with little:
You have little fingers and little toes. Whether any of these is a small finger or a small toe is a separate issue.
Your little brother or little sister likewise may or may not be a small brother or small sister.
And your grandmother might be a little old lady, and if she is, she is likely a small old lady, but would you call her that? And would her husband have called her the small woman instead of the little woman?
Louisa May Alcott, after all, didn’t write a book called Small Women. Nor did Laura Ingalls Wilder write Small House on the Prairie, nor did T.S. Eliot write a poem “Small Gidding” nor Dickens write a novel Small Dorrit. (There was also no small Orphan Annie or small boy blue.)
Winnie-the-Pooh is a “bear of little brain.” Is he a bear of small brain? Separate question.
Speaking of bears, Ursa Minor is also the Little Dipper. Not the Small Dipper.
And Custer’s last stand was not at Small Big Horn. Nor is Small Rock the capital of Arkansas.
You can stay a little while; would you ever stay a small while? How about if you were in the small boys’ room or small girls’ room? Oops, that should be little boys’ room or little girls’ room.
If you go to a little (or even a small) soirée, you may wear or see a little black dress, but how about a small black dress? Doesn’t that depend on the wearer’s size?
And if you’re getting an award, you may thank the little people, but it’s a separate matter whether you have any small people to thank (even just a small bit – I mean a little bit).
Anyway, you hope nobody learns about your dirty little secrets (not your dirty small secrets), whether or not they involve a little blue pill (not a small blue pill).
Now, on the other hand, let’s look at small things. Arundhati Roy didn’t write a book called The God of Little Things, after all. Richard Carlson doesn’t have a book out called Don’t Sweat the Little Stuff. J.B. Phillips didn’t write Your God Is Too Little. Frances Moore Lappe didn’t write Diet for a Little Planet. We’ve already established why James Herriot didn’t write All Creatures Great and Little – or, well, more to the point, why the writer of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” from which Herriot took the line, didn’t write it thus first. (Notice how many of these titles are non-fiction, compared to all the fiction littles, though?) And Neil Armstrong didn’t take “one little step for [a] man… one giant leap for mankind.”
Speaking of print, you don’t look at contracts to scrutinize the little print. Not even if you’re running a little business – or do you mean a small business?
If you find out, while making small talk (not little talk), that some new acquaintance knows someone else you know, you probably won’t say little world!
And if you have a party, it may last till the small hours, but what the heck would the little hours be?
If you are asked for coins by someone on the street, he wants your small change, but he’d probably rather have more than little change. (Especially if he wants to be more than a small-time player.)
And if you give him some help, is it due to a still little voice at the back of your head, or – rather – to a still small voice?
Say instead you decide to spend your money on a hunting rifle to go after small game (not little game). Do you get a little-bore rifle? A small-bore one, rather.
But that’s all small potatoes. (I don’t mean to say it’s little potatoes.) Skip the guns. Buy kitchen equipment. If a recipe book asks you to mix a little brandy with a little melted butter, say, it will probably tell you to do so in a small bowl – there are little bowls in the world, but small is a specified size whereas little, it seems, is a more impressionistic description. Small is used for sizes in particular, while little can be used for amounts, and is perhaps more likely to be used without literal reference to size (which is why your nasty little friend can be a fair-sized person). Small is a word you use with a measuring tape, and little a word you use peering through a magnifier, an airplane window, or a mental lens.
Sometimes there can be variation, too. We know about small towns – John Cougar Mellencamp, the Bronski Beat, Journey, and many others have sung about them. On the other hand, Simon and Garfunkel sang about “My Little Town.”
And then there are sayings, wherein a little often goes a long way – or a small does, anyway. Actors often say “There are no small parts, just small actors” – sometimes to perk themselves up when working on a bit part, but often to needle a fellow actor who has mentioned modestly that he has just a small part. Could we say “There are no little parts, just little actors”?
Oh, and how about this classic: “Little things amuse little minds.” Oops, that’s “Small things amuse small minds.” This is typically used as a put-down by someone trying to present themselves as mature and superior. But in my observation, small minds often need very big things to amuse them: explosions, car crashes, what have you. On the other hand, would you say someone who can extract this much fun out of two small words is small minded? I hope not, since you have read this far…