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This lesson will help clarify when to use the confusing words big, small, large, little, tall, short, high, and low. Often, the only difference between them is in their collocations.
“Big” is much more common than “large.” The word “large” is a little more formal, but in many sentences, it makes no difference: She lives in a big house. = She lives in a large house.
So let’s focus on the collocations in which large is almost always used – knowing that you can use “big” for other objects. We tend to use large with drink sizes – a large coffee, a large soda – as well as with clothing sizes – small, medium, and large.
Large is usually used with words referring to statistics and measurements, such as quantity, number, amount, increase, and proportion. We say:
– A large number of students enrolled in the course.
– A big number of students enrolled in the course.
We also use the expressions “large scale” and “small scale” to refer to the size of an operation; for example, “The factory began large-scale production of automotive parts.”
There are a number of collocations in which we must use “big” and we cannot use “large.” These include situations and events, for example: a big accomplishment, a big decision, a big disappointment, a big failure, a big improvement, a big mistake, and a big surprise. You can also use the informal expressions big brother and big sister to refer to a sibling who is older than you.
The words “tall” and “short” are used for physical objects, and refer to the total height from the bottom to the top. So we talk about a tall building, tall trees, and a tall man/woman. The words “high” and “low” refer to distance above the ground – so we say that an airplane is flying 10,000 feet high, or that an apple is on a low branch of a tree.
High and low are also used with non-physical things, especially those which have different “levels”:
– high/low prices
– high/low levels
– high/low quality
– high/low rate
– high/low degree
Finally, let’s tackle “small” and “little.” The word “little” can imply that you feel some affection or sympathy for the object, whereas the word “small” is neutral. Thus, “little” often appears together with adjectives like nice, cute, pretty, poor, and tiny.
– She lives in a small house.
– She lives in a cute little house.
– They have three small children.
– They have three pretty little girls.
– We adopted a small dog.
– We adopted a poor little dog that had been abandoned in the park.
Another difference is that the word “small” usually refers to physical size, whereas the word “little” can refer to quantity – it means “not very much” and is the opposite of “a lot”:
For example, we can say:
– I made a little money from a temporary job. (not “small money”)
– I slept very little last night. (not “slept very small”)
– There’s little salt in this food. (not “small salt”)