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Is there a difference between them? If so, how and when are they used?

For example:

I fixed a little/small typo.

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1  
It would be hard to say that the difference is little, but you could say that the difference is small. –  Unreason Jun 23 '11 at 14:39
    
Because of it's varied history the English often has lots of words for the same thing. So you have little and large, big and small. Often one will be old english, another anglo-saxon, french, norse or from latin. –  mgb Jun 23 '11 at 17:51
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But you could say there is little difference. –  KeithS Jun 23 '11 at 20:10
    
It is interesting to note that in Danish, and maybe other European languages, "little" (lille) is always singular and "small" (små) plural. For example, "the little dog" is den lille hund, however "two little dogs" would be to små hunde. To lille hunde would be utterly ungrammatical. I wondered if there has ever been the same rule in English. –  user50820 Aug 30 '13 at 8:19
    
@mgb, it is often the case that seemingly redundant synonyms (that are rarely quite redundant in reality) represent one inherited word and one borrowed. “One will be Old English, another Anglo-Saxon …” doesn’t really make sense, though, since Old English is basically the descendant of Anglo-Saxon. The number of words in Modern English that come from Anglo-Saxon words that were not also Old English words must be extremely small, if there are any at all. (They would arguably be loanwords, anyway) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 30 '13 at 10:22

7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

When you are denoting size, there is little difference between "little" and "small". In your example sentence, either would work just fine (and mean just about the same thing in everyday usage).

The most significant difference between the two comes into play when you're describing quantity. As others have noted, only "little" can be used to describe quantities.

Another bit about "little" is that depending on whether you have the article "a" in front of it, the meaning flips:

I have a little experience teaching English.

I have little experience teaching English.

The two sentences have opposite meanings. The former indicates your having some experience, whereas the latter indicates your having no experience. Another example of the latter is the word's usage in the first paragraph, first sentence of this answer.

The word "small" has no such issues.

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1  
Compare to few/a few. –  jackgill Jun 24 '11 at 1:16
    
The "few / a few" pair is similar in that the addition of the article "a" changes the meaning, but this time it does so in a slightly different way. 1. There are few differences between the two = There aren't too many differences between the two. 2. There are a few differences between the two = There are 3~4 differences between the two. –  narx Aug 5 '11 at 20:58

You can use either in that sentence:

I fixed a little typo.

I fixed a small typo.

Where the usage diverges is in the phrase "a little":

I sighed a little when you said that.

This is an adverb meaning somewhat or to some extent.

Edited to add:

Also, "a little" is used to mean a small quantity:

I spilled a little coffee on my shirt when the car went over a pothole.

This is probably best viewed as a contraction of "a little bit of ..." and you would never use small ("I spilled a small coffee on my shirt") to mean the same thing; "small" in that sentence would refer to the size of the cup, not the amount spilled on the shirt.

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Yeah, this is correct. Both small and little apply to sizes; only little applies to quantities. –  MrHen Jun 23 '11 at 15:12

The meanings diverge especially when referring to people and animals:

She is small

Describes her size.

She is little

Would usually describe her age if she is a person or an animal, although it can also describe size.

In your case:

I fixed a little typo.

I fixed a small typo.

Both forms are interchangeable.

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There are a number of differences, one of which @Robusto has listed, and that is:

"little" can be used as a quantifier, denoting the amount of something, whereas "small" denotes size.

The other difference in usage is, "small" is used to form comparatives and superlatives, but "little" is just used as a description.

i.e "A small/smaller boy" : the reason the boy is small, is because he is being compared to other boys of the same age, and he is of less size than the norm.

"A little boy" is just a boy which is small of size, but doesn't necessarily compare the boy with anything.

You see "little boy", but not "littler boy", because "small" is used to form the comparatives and superlatives.

So, "a little typo/ a small typo" could mean a "typo" small in quantity(little), or significance(small).

If forming the comparatives or superlatives i.e. -er and -est, "small" is usually used.

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I would say the usage generally reflects the speaker’s attitude toward the thing described: small can mean smaller than the norm, undersized. Surprisingly, it is distantly related to Latin malus, French mal/mauvais, meaning bad.

Little on the other hand can suggest cute, loveable.

Compare a small boy, slightly pejorative, and a little boy, rather approbative.

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I would add this to @narx's answer, with which I agree:

Little can also mean unimportant, undistinguished, petty, and so on. It is not just a measure of size or quantity. He is a little man can mean he is small in size or significance, or he acts in a petty way (similar to the senses of stature). Small can also convey such other meanings, but this is less common, IMO.

In the OP example:

  • A small typo generally means that the fix involved few character changes (e.g. Levenshtein distance).
  • A little typo can as easily mean (a) the same thing as a small typo or (b) that the typo or the fix was not very important.

[It's a bit like the difference in French between un homme grand (a tall man) and un grand home (a great man).]

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Swedish demonstrates the root of the English words little and small, whatever the use now. It is simply the singular and plural.

  • en liten flicka = a ltttle girl
  • små flickor = small girls
  • de små flickorna = the small girls

  • ett litet barn = a little child

  • det lilla barnet = the little child* små barn = small children;
  • de små barnen = the small children

This incidentally also shows the source of the occasional ‑en plural in English:

  • ett barn – a child (note Scottish bairn)
  • barnen – the children
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