For example, can you say, the toothpaste is little minty, or little fresh? Or, for example, that man is little tall?


2 Answers 2


You can use little as an adverb to modify an adjective in some cases.

It’s not particularly common, outside of a few stock phrases, to do so with an adjective in the positive, and none of the examples you give sound idiomatic. They’re (probably) grammatical, but I’d say they would normally only be used in a humoristic or sarcastic manner.

The most common collocation I can think of where little modifies an adjective is little known (also sometimes written as a compound, little-known).

Apart from this quite limited usage, there is a more widespread and productive construction where little is used to modify comparatives of adjectives:

Politicians are little more than a bunch of thieves!

Of course, when used this way, little means ‘only a little bit’, so something which is little known is obscure, rare, recondite. It emphasises that it is almost not known at all.

In contrast, what you seem to be looking for in your example phrases is a little, which is (among other things) an adverb that modifies adjectives and means ‘to a limited degree’. If the toothpaste is a little minty, it means that there is a bit of a minty flavour to it, enough to be noticeable. If it is little minty (although that’s an awkward phrasing), you’re implying that you were expecting it to be minty, perhaps because it has pictures of mint leaves and says “Extra minty!” on the packaging, but in reality, there’s almost no mintiness at all.

Tall is an interesting case, because you wouldn’t be very likely to say that someone is a little tall at all—even though it is perfectly logical notionally (nothing unusual about “He’s a little short”, “He’s a little fat”, or “He’s a little skinny”). You would instead say something like, “He’s fairly tall” or “He’s somewhat tall” or “He’s quite tall”.

Using little alone here makes it even odder. “He’s little tall” would mean that he is actually short (whereas “He’s a little tall”, while uncommon, would mean that he is slightly above average height), but it is something you’d only expect to hear by someone who’s deliberately using unusual phrasing for effect, probably humoristic understatement. It’s a bit similar to saying that someone is ‘vertically challenged’.

  • 1
    I agree with everything here. But I'd add that little-known is normally hyphenated if it comes before the modified noun, but not if it's after - "A little-known man is little known". Which I think is something of a "fixed term", since little without a is a relatively uncommon/literary/dated usage today. But a little = a bit = a tad = somewhat remains fully current. Sep 19, 2014 at 12:45
  • @FumbleFingers Adjectives modified by adverbs of degree are usually hyphenated when used attributively (“a fully-understood problem”, but “the problem is fully understood”); what I meant was that little(-)known and well(-)known are both sometimes found hyphenated even when used predicatively (“this problem is well-known”), which is a tendency limited to just a few fixed terms. Sep 19, 2014 at 12:48
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    As hinted at in the last paragraph, the adverb slightly will be serviceable to modify adjectives in many contexts.
    – hardmath
    Sep 19, 2014 at 13:42
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    It's idiomatic enough to say "I'm a little tall for this", though that might be regional, and it's short for "I'm a little too tall for this". Compare it with, for example, "Aren't you a little old to be playing with action figures?"
    – Josh
    Sep 19, 2014 at 15:22
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    Fun with the adverbial little: "It was a little bit sandwich."
    – Kyle Hale
    Sep 19, 2014 at 21:31

You would use "a little".

It's a little cold today.


Sorry, I'm a little late.

I'd be careful about using "a little tall", however. It doesn't quite sound right due to the contradictory terms used. Go with "quite tall" in that scenario.

  • So, you can use "a little" but not "little"? I want to say that it's not fresh enough, or that it's not minty enough.
    – Pedro
    Sep 19, 2014 at 12:47
  • @Pedro You wouldn’t use a little for that; but you wouldn’t say “This toothpaste is little minty”, either, unless you wanted to sound unusual. You’d probably just say, “This toothpaste is barely minty at all” or “There’s hardly any minty flavour to this toothpaste”. Sep 19, 2014 at 12:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet ok, so is it only with adjectives that is sounds with or does it happen with nouns too? For example, "I have little money", is it weird too?
    – Pedro
    Sep 19, 2014 at 12:59
  • With nouns, it’s generally fine; at least, I can’t think of any instances where “I don’t have much X” sounds natural and “I have little X” doesn’t. Sep 19, 2014 at 13:11
  • 2
    The adverb scarcely would serve in many contexts where you want to convey "not enough" of an attribute.
    – hardmath
    Sep 19, 2014 at 13:45

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