Is there a way of saying that a small change will make a big difference? The current sentence doesn't sound very good. I do not want to say something along the lines of a domino effect.


9 Answers 9


I'd say pivotal fits the bill nicely.


Extremely important and affecting how something develops.

  • A pivotal moment in the history of the Egyptian state
  • He played a pivotal role in the negotiations.
  • A pivotal figure/player in US politics
  • Pivotal to: He sees these reforms as pivotal to our economic interests in Asia.

From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pivot

A pin, point, or short shaft on the end of which something rests and turns, or upon and about which something rotates or oscillates.

  • +1 for pivotal. Reminds me 'cardinal', which online dictionaries define as 'of the greatest importance: fundamental' but which my ancient, paper dictionary defines as 'pertaining to a hinge'.
    – Mynamite
    Apr 7, 2014 at 22:44
  • "Pivotal" is good (+1). A pivot is small by itself, but allows something much larger to change orientation, greatly magnifying its significance.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 8, 2014 at 13:29

This is nothing but the butterfly effect.

  • per definition: the idea that a very small change in one part of a system can have large effects in other parts. This seems to put an emphasis on the differentt parts which is not what I want.
    – Vader
    Apr 7, 2014 at 21:23
  • 1
    Didn't see this answer when I commented above. Either way, @Vader the butterfly effect doesn't imply changes in different systems but rather that, for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill may roll into any surrounding valley depending on, among other things, slight differences in its initial position. Shift the position very slightly and it may roll in a completely different direction. The 'different part' is more of the fact that a small change creates a vastly different result.
    – Doc
    Apr 8, 2014 at 0:34
  • 2
    I also think of the butterfly effect being about large unpredictable changes in other parts of a system.
    – Ian
    Apr 8, 2014 at 10:26
  • The Butterfly Effect applies to systems meeting the definition of chaotic, such as the weather ("a butterfly flapping its wings over the Amazon causing a tornado in Texas, two weeks later"). I don't think it really applies to the situation described in the OP.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 8, 2014 at 13:23

The avalanche effect is signified by making a small change with a big difference in result.


By changing one function in my code I caused an avalanche effect. The function caused a loop therefor taking down the entire website.

Also if a small change creates incremental changes that ends up being a big change, you could refer to that as the snowball effect.

  • can you please give an example in a sentence?
    – Vader
    Apr 7, 2014 at 21:32
  • @Vader - added an example and its close cousin. Apr 7, 2014 at 21:40
  • Upvoted for snowball actually, I've seen it used more than avalanche.
    – Nigralbus
    Apr 8, 2014 at 15:41

A well known phrase for a small action having a wide sphere of influence (change) is the ripple effect: a spreading effect or series of consequences caused by a single action or event. One small event spreads outwards involving more and more.

Think Rosa Parks: one woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested. It set off a widespread dissatisfaction, turned into indignation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, gave a relatively unknown (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) a Montgomery platform which lead to a nationwide platform, and gave the entire Civil Rights movement a focus, an icon, and a needed boost.

Parks' quiet yet outrageous act of civil disobedience was a stone dropped into a pool that would soon grow turbulent. Its ripple effect led to significant changes in the social fabric of the United States over the next decade and ended segregation laws in the South.

...whatever your faith, you can believe in the spirit of strength, justice, and courage that prompted one small woman to take a big risk on a crowded bus on a December evening -- a shining moment that changed the world for the better. - Rosa Parks in 1988 © Angel Franco, New York Times

  • To me, the ripple effect is just spreading without amplification. I would prefer Mynamite's domino effect as a more natural candidate in your example. Apr 7, 2014 at 22:25
  • @CaptainGiraffe - I have no problem with your preference of another answer, but I believe from your comment that we greatly disagree on the meaning of the ripple effect. It spreads outwards involving more and more people. Think Rosa Parks: one woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man. It set off a spreading dissatisfaction, turned into indignation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, gave a relatively unknown (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) a Montgomery platform which lead to a nationwide platform, and gave the entire Civil Rights movement a focus and an icon. I think it is an apt metaphor. Apr 7, 2014 at 22:40
  • 1
    I stand corrected by your new example. Apr 7, 2014 at 22:58
  • 1
    @CaptainGiraffe - I'm glad you challenged me. It made my answer a better one. Thanks! :) Apr 7, 2014 at 23:00

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow"


Or the domino effect - one small push and everything changes.

  • If you'd read well you'd have seen that the original post mentioned that "domino effect" was not what it was after…
    – user58319
    Apr 8, 2014 at 12:15
  • The domino effect leads to something happening far away in distance or time, but not necessarily of greater magnitude than the original push. It's the same size disturbance that travels a long way, rather than something that expands.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 8, 2014 at 13:26
  • @user58319 Ah you're so right. By the time I'd read through all the answers I'd forgotten what the OP said.
    – Mynamite
    Apr 8, 2014 at 18:23
  • @user58319 It's not Myna's fault - the question was edited after many of the answers came in to clarify what op was looking for. Apr 8, 2014 at 20:41
  • @DoubleDouble Thank you! Glad to know I'm not going crazy.
    – Mynamite
    Apr 8, 2014 at 21:03

This is something of a tangent but since two copper coins would surely count as "small change" then what Jesus was recorded as saying seems relevant ...

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. (Luke 21:1-3, NIV)

This is commonly referred to as the "widow's mite" and suggests that even small change can be a valued contribution that makes a significant difference.


A more direct phrase may be something similar to, "...seemingly insignificant change..." I can't think of much else along those lines, though I'm sure others can.

Otherwise, a "single wave which became a tsunami" (though scientifically incorrect) or, "the spark that ignited an explosion" "Every (vote, penny, other object?) counts" "feather that broke the camel's back"

The icing on the cake could be a small change that makes the whole much better if its worded right.

Something that is made a big deal of even though it is a small change might be made into a mountain from a molehill.


A direct analog to the domino effect would be cascade.

It is used with this exact meaning, for example, in chemistry and Database design.

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