That made me a little happier

is clearly perfectly fine, yet no one would really ever say

That made me a tiny happier,

even though both "little/tiny bit happier" are fine.

Is there some logic to this? It's perfectly clear what the second sentence means, even though it sounds "a tiny" wrong.


This is similar to what Matt Эллен said, but uses the analysis and terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. First, tiny is only ever an adjective. As such it can function as attributive modifier of nouns (e.g. a tiny flower) or predicative complement of verbs (e.g., that flower is tiny), and a few other minor functions.

The situation with little is similar when it's an adjective, but it's not just an adjective. We also have the determinative little (e.g., little water) and the complex determinative a little (e.g., a little water; a complex determinative is a single determinative made up of two or more words.) Determinatives typically function as determiner of nouns (e.g., that water), but some determinatives also function as modifier of adjectives (e.g., it wasn't that big). Most adjectives, tiny included, can't function as modifier of adjectives. Also, some NPs can modify adjective (e.g., [a city block] longer).

That made me [a little] happier 

D a little is modifier of Adj happier

*That made me tiny happier

Adj tiny can't modify Adj happier

*That made me a tiny happier

D a can't form a constituent with Adj tiny or Adj happier; Adj tiny still can't modify Adj happier

a bit

D a is determiner of N bit forming an NP

That made me [a bit] happier

NP a bit is modifier of Adj happier

a little/tiny bit

D a is determiner of N bit; Adj little/tiny is modifier of N bit

That made me [a little/tiny bit] happier

NP a little/tiny bit is modifier of Adj happier

The interesting question is how little became a determinative and how a little became a complex determinative.

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  • So you agree that a little in "a little happier" is a NP that modifies the adj. "happier". Would you thus agree that "a tininess" would work the same way as "a little"? Or do you think "a tininess" is wrong/do you think "tininess" isn't even a word? – AverageGatsby Jan 28 '15 at 16:00
  • No, "a little" in "a little happier" is a complex determiner, not an NP. – Brett Reynolds Jan 28 '15 at 21:45
  • Thank you for writing this, it's the clearest explanation yet. – Kirill Jan 28 '15 at 21:58
  • In that case, you should edit or explain the last part: "'That made me [a little/tiny bit] happier'(.) NP a little/tiny bit is modifier of Adj happier" – AverageGatsby Jan 28 '15 at 23:14
  • Not sure what your point is AverageGatsby. 'Tiny/Little' is an adjective functioning as a modifier in the larger NP 'a little bit'. – Brett Reynolds Jan 30 '15 at 7:45

Quite simply "a little" is used as an adverb and a determiner, but "a tiny" is not used at all.

Both little and tiny are used as adjectives.

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  • 4
    So, in a little bit closer and a tiny bit closer, 'little' and 'tiny' function as adjectives, describing 'bit'. In a little closer 'a little' is an adverb. Phew!! A subgroup of adverbs called 'intensifiers'? – Dan Jan 22 '15 at 13:45
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    Note that a little happier is synonymous with a little bit happier, or happier, by a little bit, where a little bit is an idiom for 'a small increment or decrement'. In other words, a little (bit) is a quantifier, and the bit part is often dropped. A tiny, on the other hand, is not a quantifier, nor even a constituent; it's an article followed by an adjective that hasta modify a count noun with proportions and dimensions (tiny means the dimensions are much smaller than usual, though the proportions are more or less the same). – John Lawler Jan 23 '15 at 19:12
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    A tiny can be part of a tiny bit, another quantifier. She's a tiny bit happier is fine. But it's not an idiom, so you can't just delete the bit part, which is what marks it as a quantifier. In other words, tiny hasn't been bleached of its meaning and become part of the automatic syntactic machinery nearly as much as little has. – John Lawler Jan 23 '15 at 19:14
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    Evidence that it's following the same idiomizing path as bit. Wait a few decades. – John Lawler Jan 27 '15 at 15:58
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    I deleted the commas in the example sentences, before I read the rest of the post, which points out that they're wrong. TL;DR. My bad. – John Lawler Jan 27 '15 at 16:29

It seems to me that "happier" is a (comparative) adjective


"a little" is a compound predicative intensifier which acts on that.

"A tiny", however, is not a compound intensifier of any kind, but a determiner plus an adjective, despite the fact that "tiny" and "little" are synonymous in their simple adjectival forms.

In other words, "a" and "little", can be put together to create an intensifier, while "a" and "tiny" cannot, despite the similarity of meaning between "little" and "tiny".

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  • And now; if you additionally can give a canonical answer to the question whether or not we may use "a tininess" in the same way we use "a little" (which i sadly wasn't allowed to implement), then I submit the bounty willingly. Concerning the contruction of "a little" your answer doesn't seem very elaborate while saying it is an intensifier strikes rather vague. Expacially if we keep in mind that in the complete wikipedia article about intensifiers "a little" is not to be found. The same goes for the next 3 pages which pop up if you google "intensifier". – AverageGatsby Jan 24 '15 at 23:59

Little has (at least) two senses. One of these is quite close (but larger!) than tiny.

A little dog is a small dog. A tiny dog is an even smaller dog.

However, a little upset means quite upset (i.e. somewhere between very upset and not upset at all). In this sense little is understood to lie within a range of possible amounts. It is comparative. Tiny is not a relative measure in this sense. It is absolute.

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  • I think this comes closer than the answer by Joe Blow but neither is the real/finite answer. The actually question is why we drop the "bit" from the phrase "a little/tiny bit" only if we use "little". This could be because we have accepted "a little" as a noun - a small amount - while "a tiny" just isn't a word. As i also mentioned in a comment to the question: while i can't cope with "it made me a tiny happier" I could imagine "it made me a tininess happier". this is though to vague to convince me. – AverageGatsby Jan 22 '15 at 1:49
  • This is irrelevant, Dan. The reason you can't say "a tiny happier" (or indeed "many milk") is the countable issue – Fattie Jan 22 '15 at 6:02
  • I'm trying to follow you @Joe Blow. I think you are saying that little is for uncountables (cf less) and tiny is for countables (cf fewer). So, you say, a little milk and a little happier. – Dan Jan 22 '15 at 11:41
  • sure, for "fluids", you can say a little air, a little petrol, a little milk. for "countables", you can say a tiny building, a tiny computer, a tiny object. that's all there is to this question from the OP - it's amazing there has been so much written on it !! – Fattie Jan 23 '15 at 5:27

While tiny has a negligible connotation, little has a comparative (definitely not/non negligible) connotation. It is also why little is more prevalently used with adjectives than tiny. 'It made me a little happy' is common than 'It made me a tiny happy'. To put it in another perspective, 'tiny' is used to just say 'not zero', while 'little' is used to just say 'not big'.

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  • every adjective has a comparative connotation. Saying something is tiny connotes that it is lesser in size as something else. "If you ment to say little has a comparative"." then i can just reply that tiny also has a comparative (tinier). Note as well that "a little" is used differently in "a little happy/happier" than in "a little dog". Additionally I think "a tiny happy" is just as wrong as "a tiny happier". "little" has to be a noun in this adverbial phrase since due to the determinant "a". – AverageGatsby Jan 23 '15 at 13:13
  • Let me try with an example. In a night sky, a planet, say Venus, appears as a missable TINY speck or dot, whereas moon appears as a unmissable little circle. In other words, tiny is used when it is 'missable' or 'negligible', whereas little is 'unmissable'. I referred to 'comparative' in the sense of how they are used. Little elephant vs big elephant, little boy vs big man etc sorta thing often used with 'animates', while tiny hole vs large hole, tiny piece of land vs large tract of land etc. – Raghuraman R Jan 23 '15 at 13:57
  • . Now, what if you want to say it really did not make me much happier. In fact it nearly wasn't palpable that I was happier. It was nearly missable. would you then say "It made me a tiny happier"? No, since it is grammatically incorrect. – AverageGatsby Jan 23 '15 at 14:01

The problem is this. Although I can say 'a little dog' and 'a tiny dog', I can say 'a little sad' but not 'a tiny sad'. An attractively straight-forward answer says simply that 'little' may be used with both countable and uncountable quantities. It seems to me that this answer misses a comparative nuance in the 'uncountable' use of little. Little can be an adjective meaning 'small' (not big). It can also act as an intensifier meaning somewhere between big and small. There is a clue that little has two senses - little as an intensifier is always preceded by 'a'

So 'little' as an adjective describes a noun - a little dog (not a big, fat or silly one).

'a little' is an intensifier that modifies the, er, intensity of an adjective. How tired are you ? - a little, quite, very, Zzzzz ...

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  • This is the same answer as the other 2 tried to provide, I am not the OP, but I would wish for a more thorough answer which keeps in mind that quite a few dictionaries define "a little" as a noun and at the same time as an idiom, while other dictionaries define it as a determinative, both definitions consent to the meaning "a small amount of". Additionally to give a correct answer one would need to address the issue that "happier" is not a noun, but an adjective (comperative) linking back to "me". Thus a determinator is by common definition not the case. It seems adverbial. TL;NS – AverageGatsby Jan 22 '15 at 12:22
  • While little is a noun, an adj, and an adv (+a little ~ determinat/idiom) at the same time, tiny is neither a noun nor an adverb and i would thus strongly advice against saying "a tiny happier". I see "a little happier" in the same logical sense as "a pint of beer" just that the of is missing. (the same applies to a better example) So I think the component "little of this adverbial phrase is a NOUN. This would raise the question whether "a tininess happier" would be correct/more acceptable or not. – AverageGatsby Jan 22 '15 at 12:28
  • In the end you describe "little" as an intesifier which is an interesting idea i haven't seen untill now. Equal how it would more correctly be a diminisher/diminutive as fumblefingers has stated in the comments. NEVERTHELESS, i still do not think that this explains the given case as a diminutuve would look like this: "It made me little happier", which seems to lessen the amount of gained happiness further if not denie it. "a little" seems still to be something else. – AverageGatsby Jan 22 '15 at 12:46
  • Please see extra added to answer above. 'A little' is one of a range adjectival modifiers, used especially with comparative adjectives. How close are we to solving this problem ? - a little closer, quite a lot closer, almost there. – Dan Jan 22 '15 at 13:12
  • Possibly almost there. It might jsut be that I am to obsessed about the idea of "a tininess" to give the author of the question what he wants. I am though becoming more and more convinced of the fact that we can use "a tininess" as an abstract measurement of size/volume/amount the same way we use "a little" as an abstract measurement of size/amount/volume. – AverageGatsby Jan 22 '15 at 15:47

I think it is interesting to note that a little cannot be seen in the same way in these examples:

That is a little dog.
That is a little strange.

In the first sentence, little is an adjective, modifying a dog. The article belongs to dog, not to little. In the second sentence, a little is a noun, used attributively.

Little is a word that can indeed be a noun, or a real adjective. A lot of nouns can be used attributively, but that doesn't make them adjectives or adverbs. Little acting as an adjective is a real adjective: it allows comparative and superlative clauses, and we can rewrite a sentence using a copula:

A little dog => That dog is little.

When we use a little as a attributive noun, however, it no longer functions as an adjective! Compare these two examples:

That man is a little strange. That is a little strange man.

In the first sentence, a little modifies strange and we know nothing about the size of the man. The second sentence has the adjective little modifying a man.

Now, tiny is an adjective. It is not a noun. Never. A tiny is not "a tiny amount". Since it cannot function as a noun, it can also not function as an attributive noun. It is only ever an adjective:

That is a tiny man => that man is tiny.

Notice how the article a belongs with man, not with tiny. Since we cannot use tiny as a noun, a sentence like

*He is a tiny weird.

Is considered ungrammatical.

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  • Finally someone with the same reasoning as I (the article "a" requires "little" to be a noun). Are you a native speaker? Because I am additionally interested in whether or not "a tininess" would be thought wrong/odd. I am convinced that "(a) little" in the given context has to be defined as "(a) little abstract measurement of". Therefore I think "a tininess" ought to work in the same way ("a tiny abstract measurement of"). – AverageGatsby Jan 26 '15 at 16:03
  • @oerkelens This is interesting, but are you sure "a little" is a noun here? This dictionary lists it as an adverb in this specific context, modifying an adjective, same as one of the other answers. – Kirill Jan 26 '15 at 19:59
  • @Kirill: dictionaries are not always correct. It lists little as an adverb, but then adds an article to it. I have only ever seen articles in English with nouns. Unless little is the one and only exception to that rule ;) – oerkelens Jan 26 '15 at 21:18
  • @oerkelens Okay, fair enough, I'm not much of an expert here, just wanted to point that out (see also Matt Эллен's answer). IWWPWS, I wonder what Pullum would say. – Kirill Jan 26 '15 at 21:24
  • @Kirill I would not say "a little" isn't an adverb/adverbial phrase but I still think it consists of an article and "little", which therefore has to be a noun (aslong as we are modifying an adjective). I assume oerkelens is of the same opinion. It is a noun just as "bit" and "lot" in "a bit" respectively "a lot". – AverageGatsby Jan 26 '15 at 22:10

It's for the same reason you can say "many" eggs, but you can not say "many" milk - one is "countable" and the other is "uncountable", as high-school English teachers label it.

"Happier" is uncountable - it's like a liquid.

You can't say "a tiny happier" for the same reason you can't say "a tiny milk".

You have to say "a tiny bit happier" or "a tiny bit of milk".

(or, use some similar deuncountablizing word, which depends on the uncountable substance in question, so, a tiny amount of milk, etc).

Similarly you can not say "a little eggs" - you have to say "very few eggs" (or a similar construction which can apply to discrete, quantified objects).

It's that simple!

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It is simply the way things have been done. Our brain has been accustomed to that specific way, so it eliminates other words that it is not used to being heard. Tiny is also even smaller than little, so it is technically used incorrectly anyways.

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