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According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 'little' as an adverb could mean:

not much; only slightly

Is there a preference among these sentences?

  • He little helped his friends.
  • He helped little his friends.
  • He helped his friends little.
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As implied by @StoneyB's answer, the overwhelming preference would be to forget about using "little" at all in any such construction. All these variations would have been credible a century or two ago, but none would arise in natural spoken English today. The closest that would be acceptable is "He helped his friends very little", but I can't for the life of me explain why simply inserting the word "very" has such an effect on acceptability. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 22:22
    
@FumbleFingers: I believe the second one was ungrammatical a century ago, as it has an adverb between the verb and the direct object. I suspect the fact that you didn't recognize this shows how little bare little is used these days. –  Peter Shor Dec 22 '12 at 11:55
    
@Peter Shor: Good point. I did find this from 1915 This man who is wholly free may will that which helps little his life. But it's a pretty weird construction all round, and I couldn't easily find any more examples, so I think you're right. As you say, my lack of an "ear" for such things is probably just another indication of how rare bare little is. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 18:01
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5 Answers

Tennyson writes

It little profits that an idle king...

So your first sentence is not an unheard of construction.

He little helps his friends.

This gives the suggestion that he provides help infrequently. It also sounds formal and literary.

He helps little his friends.

This sentence sounds like he's trying to make his friends smaller.

He helps his friends little.

This sentence could mean infrequently; it also sounds like he's just generally not of much help. It is less formal-sounding too.

This last one, I think we've all agreed, is probably the most common way of expressing what you are trying to say, although gmcgath is right in the comments, where he says that

He helps his friends very little.

is more usual.

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The Tennyson quote was exactly the first one to come to my mind as well. I agree that “to help little” sorely risks construing little to be a verb. –  tchrist Dec 21 '12 at 14:36
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Bare little, as an adverb, is uncommon in US speech; it’s been largely replaced by not much.

You will encounter it more often in written discourse of a fairly formal register. There is a distinct preference for placing it immediately before the word it modifies:

  • The little-used “little” has been largely replaced by “not much”, OR
  • “Little” is little used today, BUT
  • ?”Little” is used little today has a distinct donnish ring even in an academic register. However, as others have noted, very little here is more acceptable.

It’s most comfortably accommodated in sentence-initial or -final position:

  • Little as he had helped his friends, they valued his attempt, AND
  • Little did he know what awaited him in the following months, AND
  • He had helped his friends little; BUT
  • ?He had little helped his friends AND
  • ?He knew little what awaited him in the following months are “literary”.

I suspect that what’s involved in all of these is conflict with the more frequent use of bare little as an adjective or noun, and of a little as an adverb with a slightly different sense. To avoid arresting the flow we have come to shy away from placing bare little in positions where any of these might be in play.

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haha - I should have read all the answers and comments before posting my comment to the question! Obviously we all recognise a big problem with "bare" little, that magically goes away when it's preceded by very. I'll leave the comment, since it was what I thought at the time - but for my money you've nailed the explanation in your last paragraph. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 22:27
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I agree with Peter Shor in the comments.

Little without being preceded by a would mean almost none. I had little money in my account = I had almost no money in my account.

So, He helped his friends little would give the sense you are looking for.

I might also add that the same rule goes with few and a few.

  • Few women have led troops in battle. (Almost none)

  • A few women have led troops in battle. (Some)

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You have to use it with a, as in the second definition in the Advanced Learners Dictionary: “He helped his friends a little.”

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Actually, I want to use 'little' in the spirit of "Little did he help his friends." –  planem Dec 21 '12 at 12:13
    
That's strange on its own. It depends on exactly what it is you're trying to say. –  Barrie England Dec 21 '12 at 12:20
    
I want it to mean that 'He hardly helped his friends.' –  planem Dec 21 '12 at 12:24
    
Then if you want to use little, it has to be He helped his friends very little. –  Barrie England Dec 21 '12 at 12:28
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I think He helped his friends little, works as well. –  Peter Shor Dec 21 '12 at 12:29
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"He helped his friend little" goes well.

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Without a it sounds quite funny. –  Fr0zenFyr Mar 15 '13 at 11:26
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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 22 '12 at 11:51

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