Small and little are two very similar words but are they exactly the same? Let’s check the British National Corpus to see what differences there are.
Small is less frequent than little.
Written and spoken language
We can see that small appears more often in written language, while little is more common in spoken English.
In language, we use domain to describe the kind of situation in which we use different words or phrases. For example, you would use different vocabulary when talking about legal issues to when you are giving a speech, writing a report or a tweet. Domain is similar to formality but covers a much wider array of situations.
Common domains for little
Common domains for small
Informative: Natural and pure sciences
Informative: Applied science
While Informative: Leisure appears for both words, we can see from the other common domains that little seems more creative and small seems more technical or precise. As a native speaker, this feels correct to me in a way that is difficult to describe.
Collocations are just words that commonly occur together. These are normally our biggest indicator of differences in meaning and they also represent the biggest problems for language learners trying to choose the correct word.
As small and little are both adjectives, I’m going to look at what words most commonly come immediately after them.
Top 10 words which follow little:
Top 10 words which follow small:
As we can see, none of the words in the top ten collocations are repeated. This shows that small and big are not at all interchangeable in many instances.
Little can be used in different ways and set phrases. For example, as seen in the common collocations we can say something like:
There is little doubt that she committed the crime
In cases such as this, little refers to quantity rather than physical size.
Little did I know what was about to happen.
This set phrase is an adverbial of time, which may be used when telling a story.
He knows a lot about it, I only know a little.
A little can be used as the opposite of a lot.