Learn English – ‘Little’ and ‘small’ in British vs American English


Is the preference for 'little' over 'small' one of the things that differentiates British from American English?

I find expressions like "I'm only little" or "She's only little" in British children books. This is something new to me. Are these also common in American English?

I am not a native English speaker, but I guess I am more accustomed to American English. I would have said "She's still very small" instead.

Best Answer

I think that rather than a difference between dialects of English, there is a difference in meaning. Small and little are not always synonymous (see this thread and this BBC page for more general discussions). Generally speaking, small tends to be more literally about size while little can be more metaphoric.

In the case of a child, small refers directly to the child's size. A small child is one whose size or height is small. A little child more directly evokes the child's youth. The two can be synonymous, because age is strongly correlated with size, but they carry different connotations. I would expect a child to say “I'm only little”, implying primarily that they are young, rather than “I'm only small”. On the other hand, a child might say “I'm small, I can squeeze through”, perhaps more than “I'm little, I can squeeze through” (though the sentence with little is also idiomatic).

Comparing “only a little child” with “only a small child” in British English and American English doesn't reveal a significant difference between the sides of the Atlantic. It does show evolution over time: small was practically unheard of in the 19th century and is now on par with little.

A related adjective is short. It relates directly to the person's height, and tends to imply short for their age.