a. Do you still write? I still write a little.

b. Do you still write short stories? I still write a little.

Is a little an adverb in (a) and a pronoun in (b)?

  • 3
    Little is a quantifier in both cases. That's a part of speech that wasn't on the approved list in 1200, so they still don't teach it in English-speaking schools. The Romans didn't know about determiners and quantifiers and complementizers, nor even adjectives (they thought they were just nouns without a fixed gender). So you're not playing with a full deck, and that's why "adverb" and "pronoun" don't seem to fit the full range of uses very well. Because they're not the right terms. Mar 2, 2020 at 14:27
  • CD actually classifies 'a little' in this usage as a [multi word] adverb: 'A little: adverb We use a little as an adverb of degree. It is more formal than a bit. "Her hands were shaking a little." ' But though most might classify open compound nouns (eg 'living room') as nouns (so 'ink well' and 'inkwell' being spelling variants), fewer would tolerate 'a little' in this usage being classified as a compound adverb. Nov 22, 2021 at 19:48

1 Answer 1


a. Do you still write? I still write a little.

b. Do you still write short stories? I still write a little.

The first thing to say is that (b) is wrong and should be I still write a few, otherwise the response does not answer the question. However, grammatically, “few” functions the same as “little”. The contrasting example would be either:

B(i). Do you still write short stories? I still write a few, in which “a few” is a noun phrase = a small number of them.


B(ii) “Are you still an author?” “I still write a little. in which “a little” is an adverbial phrase = to a small extent.

The problem is the verb in these sentences. Confusion arises as the verb “to write” is ambitransitive. An ambitransitive verb is a verb that can appear as an intransitive:

1 “What is your job?” “I write.”

and as transitive: 2 “What is your job?” “I write books.”

Ambitransitive verbs, in their intransitive form, can always have an object added and become transitive – BUT they can also always have an adverb added: 1a “What is your job?” “I write professionally,” or “I write for a newspaper.”

Compare this with the transitive: I write articles professionally,” or “I write articles for a newspaper.”

The status of “a little” therefore varies as to how the ambitransitive verb is perceived. With the intransitive, it is an adverbial phrase with the transitive verb it is noun.

  • 'b' is totally grammatical, idiomatic in context, though it doesn't fulfil the Gricean maxim of quantity (and possibly that of manner). // I can't see "I write a little" as sensibly analysed as S + V + DO. Show me your little. Mar 2, 2020 at 13:51
  • @Edwin Ashworth "I can't see how..." A: "Can we afford it? I have a little(adj./predeterminer) money, How much have you?" __ B: "A little.(n) = a small amount." __ A: Show me your little.(n) = your small amount." (And "to show" is not usually ambitransitive...)
    – Greybeard
    Mar 2, 2020 at 14:08
  • @EdwinAshworth So do you think "a little" is an adverb in (b) as well as (a), as in "I write (them) a little"?
    – listeneva
    Mar 2, 2020 at 15:29
  • @Greybeard But your B(i) sounds stilted to my ear, although it should be grammatical.
    – listeneva
    Mar 2, 2020 at 15:33
  • @listeneva Whoa, I said used adverbially, though John Lawler has included this in the quantifier category. I wouldn't, seeing quantifiers as a subset of determiners, attaching only to noun phrases. I'd not bother analysing POS of individual orthographic words in lexemes. Mar 2, 2020 at 15:37

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