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Is the preference for 'little' over 'small' one of the things that differentiates British from American English?

I find expressions like "I'm only little" or "She's only little" in British children books. This is something new to me. Are these also common in American English?

I am not a native English speaker, but I guess I am more accustomed to American English. I would have said "She's still very small" instead.

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It would help if you could point to whatever evidence you have found that there is actually a difference, and also what your own opinion is about the reason. Basically, I'd like to see some evidence that you've given a reasonable amount of thought to your question yourself. –  Erik Kowal Jul 10 at 10:22
    
@ErikKowal, I have added my observation which made me think so. –  adipro Jul 10 at 11:00
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I think it's the specific expression "I'm only little/small" that's BrE instead of AmE. –  John Peyton Jul 10 at 13:20
    
@JohnPeyton, after a while, that has become my suspicion, too. –  adipro Jul 10 at 19:58

5 Answers 5

I think that rather than a difference between dialects of English, there is a difference in meaning. Small and little are not always synonymous (see this thread and this BBC page for more general discussions). Generally speaking, small tends to be more literally about size while little can be more metaphoric.

In the case of a child, small refers directly to the child's size. A small child is one whose size or height is small. A little child more directly evokes the child's youth. The two can be synonymous, because age is strongly correlated with size, but they carry different connotations. I would expect a child to say “I'm only little”, implying primarily that they are young, rather than “I'm only small”. On the other hand, a child might say “I'm small, I can squeeze through”, perhaps more than “I'm little, I can squeeze through” (though the sentence with little is also idiomatic).

Comparing “only a little child” with “only a small child” in British English and American English doesn't reveal a significant difference between the sides of the Atlantic. It does show evolution over time: small was practically unheard of in the 19th century and is now on par with little.

A related adjective is short. It relates directly to the person's height, and tends to imply short for their age.

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But ... this is because over time, a small child has come to be used evoke the child's youth, as well as a little child. See this Ngram. When I hear a small child, unless context would imply that it means small as opposed to large, I think it's synonymous with little child. –  Peter Shor Jul 10 at 12:52
    
In common usage little is more about size. Little people for midgets/dwarves and possibly fairies, regardless of age. –  AbraCadaver Jul 10 at 20:15

AmE Ngram:, BrENgram:

shows no real preference in usage between the two terms in BrE and AmE. What appears is a convergence in usage of both terms. Little used to be more popular both in UK and US till a few decades ago.

According to this source:

In comparative and superlative form, small is more common in British English, and little is more common in American English.

  • That's the smallest phone I've ever seen - more common in British English

  • That's the littlest phone I've ever seen - more common in American English

Source: http://www.eslbase.com/grammar

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Weird... having been born in and living in the US all my life, I would've never said "That's the littlest phone I've ever seen", and pretty much everyone I've ever spoken with would use "smallest" as well. For reference, I grew up in Sacramento CA, lived in San Francisco for a few years, and currently live near Boston MA. –  Doktor J Jul 10 at 14:30
    
I would hear littlest if the person was trying to point out something quirky. "He's the littlest stinkin' brat you've ever seen!" If they were referring to a child who had not achieved the height and weight of their peers, then I would expect to hear smallest. –  corsiKa Jul 10 at 14:50
    
There was The Littlest Hobo! –  Shambhala Jul 10 at 23:04

According to Google Ngram, at the very least, in both British English and American English, the relative incidences of the two words seem identical.

So, no, the use of little vs small does not seem to be one of the differences between British and American English.

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As a native speaker of British English (or real-english to be obtuse) I would agree with both the posts of Vality and Gilles but would note, specifically in the run example, that the reference between little and short has been missed.

I would say "I went for a little run" or more likely I went for a "short run" as this is denoting either distance or time.

People can be 'short' denoting height e.g. "he was too short to ride the roller-coaster"; 'little' denoting age or frame i.e. a "little old lady" again, may be endearing; or 'small' e.g. "he was only small" again referring to frame, perhaps a little more 'frank' - i.e. more plain speaking than to refer to someone as 'little'.

The quote you mention refers to a child, thus the use of 'little' makes sense as a term of endearment.

edit: I would also add that in your example 'She's still very small' you've introduced a concept of time. If you said 'She's very small' that would be fine. It feels odd that you've added 'still' as this suggests that she should be something different. i.e. Are you expecting her to be bigger, taller or larger?

NOTE: I would have added this as a comment, but do not currently have the rep to post as such...

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I had in mind a scenario where a mother told her daughter to be gentle towards her baby sister. Is "Be gentle. She's only little" equivalent to "Be gentle. She's still very small"? –  adipro Jul 10 at 20:04
    
Re: "Are you expecting her to be bigger, taller or larger?"; It's very common for children to get bigger over time. –  The Photon Jul 10 at 20:49
    
Quite, you expect children to grow. But there is the introduction of the element of surprise in the second statement, affecting the comparison. –  Chris2357 Jul 10 at 23:13

As a native British English speaker I think an issue here is the assumption that little and small have precisely the same meaning. Gilles covered this well but I would like to make an additional point.

To my ear, small sounds extremely clinical, it would be difficult to describe a person as small out of a medical context without it sounding rude or at least very cold.

Little on the other hand has a vaguer and far more endearing feeling. You could easily refer to someone as little in an endearing way, for example. It would sound perfectly natural to hear a parent saying “That’s my little boy” with a note of pride and affection, whereas “That’s my small boy” would sound somehow unpleasant.

Little can also be used to describe an action. So although one could say “I went out for a little running”, one could not say “I went out for a *small running”.

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OTOH, you could say "I went out for a small run". In general, for quantities, "a little X" and "a small amount of X" are essentially equivalent, though the latter is more verbose so you're right that "little" and "small" aren't exact synonyms. –  David Richerby Jul 10 at 14:53

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