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Improve Your English / Poboljsaj Znanje Engleskog
(in cooperation with BBC UK, Learning English - Learn it Program and Roger Woodham)

This week's question is :
Do you say: a small amount of gold or a little amount of gold? What is the difference?

... and the answer is :
  A small house / a little house
When little and small both mean not large, with some nouns they can be used interchangeably with little or no difference in meaning:

They lived in a little house in the country.

They lived in a small house in the country.

However, little also suggests that you feel sympathy for something, whereas small is more neutral and does not suggest this. Compare the following:

He's only a little boy. He doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. ~ He may be a small child, but that doesn't excuse his behaviour!

Because little invokes sympathy, it is often used with other adjectives like nice, sweet, tiny, pretty, poor. Small cannot be used in this way:

This job is a nice little earner. Maximum reward for minimum effort.
She's a sweet / pretty little thing. Always has a smile on her face.
They live in this tiny little bed-sit in Shepherds Bush.

Little = not much

Little is also more complicated than small because it can also mean not much. Small can only mean not large. Compare the following:

Will you have beer or wine with your meal? ~ I'd like a little wine, please. A small glass of red wine would be nice.

Would you like a large or a small coffee? ~ Oh, a small coffee please. I shan't sleep tonight if I have a large one.

Abstract nouns that often follow little (meaning not much) include hope, chance, change, effect, use and point:

There's little chance / hope of finding any survivors after such a massive explosion. I see little point in continuing the rescue mission.

There has been little change in his condition over the last seventy two hours. The new drugs appear to have had little effect.

Small amount / small number

When we define small as not large we are thinking about small in size, amount or number:

These shoes are too small. They really don't fit me at all.

I only had a small amount of gold but enough to purchase everything I needed.

A disappointingly small number of people entered the competition.

Note that small also combines readily with very and few as well as with too. Few cannot be combined with little and little is not normally used with very or too:

I noticed that there were a few small mistakes in your essay.

The phone box was very small, but we all managed to squeeze in.

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