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'Little' or 'A Little'? What Is the Difference? | Mastering Grammar

(Last Updated: 7 February 2024)


Little vs A Little: Understanding the Difference

The expressions little and a little may appear similar, but they carry different meanings when referring to small amounts. In this blog post, we will explore the nuances between these expressions to help clarify their proper use.

Little: Not Much

Little is used with uncountable nouns to mean 'not much':

He has little interest in football. (His interest in football is minimal.)

There's little milk left in the fridge, so we can't make a big batch of pancakes. (The small amount of milk makes it impossible to make a big batch of pancakes.)

She found little comfort in the words that were meant to encourage her. (The comfort was inadequate.)

We have little time to get to the airport, so we must hurry. (The time is insufficient and there is a sense of urgency.)

A Little: Some

A little is used with uncountable nouns to mean 'some' or 'a small amount':

I have a little experience with graphic design, so I can help with the project. (I have enough experience to be of some help.)

✅ Can you spare a little time to help me? (A brief moment is sufficient.)

She spoke a little French, which came in handy on the trip to Paris. (Her knowledge, while not extensive, was useful.)

Adding a little salt can enhance the flavour of the noodle dish. (A small amount is enough to make a difference.)

Special Note on Only a Little

When using only with little, always include the article a. The correct phrase is only a little, indicating a limited amount:

We have only a little sugar left, so we can't bake a large cake.
We have only little sugar left, so we can't bake a large cake.

There's only a little time before the movie starts, so let's hurry.
There's only little time before the movie starts, so let's hurry.

I could give him only a little advice since I'm not an expert on the topic.
I could give him only little advice since I'm not an expert on the topic.

She was able to save only a little money last month.
She was able to save only little money last month.


In Summary, little means 'not much', while a little means 'some'. 

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Examples from the Media

As we move toward the next decade, there is little doubt Toronto 2030 will need many more of the low-wage earners who have proved indispensable during the pandemic. Toronto Star (2020)

The Chinese territory of Hong Kong and the South London enclave of Sutton are 6,000 miles apart, a 12-hour flight away and seemingly have little in common. —Daily Mail (2023)

But after a little experience, you start recognizing bad and dangerous driving around you. —The Washington Post (2016)

"Inevitably, a new timetable takes a little time for people to get used to," Mr Graham said. —The Sydney Morning Herald (2004)

Practice

Fill in each blank with either little or a little.

1. I have ______ bit of sugar left, enough to make one batch of cookies.

2. We have ______ sugar left, so we must use it sparingly.

3. We only have ______ sugar left, so we might need to buy more to bake the cake.

4. There's ______ hope of finding the lost earrings now; it's been too long.

5. She showed ______ interest in the science project, preferring to draw instead.

6. If you save just ______ money each month, it will add up over time.

7. He had ______ patience for delays and insisted on prompt action.

8. With ______ effort, we can clean up this park in no time.

9. I know ______ Japanese, so I was able to ask for directions in Japan.

10. The garden received ______ sunlight, which made it difficult for flowers to bloom.

11. There's ______ room for error in this intricate piece of machinery.

12. After the long journey, there was ______ energy left in them to celebrate.

13. The baby drank only ______ milk before falling asleep again.

14. We've got ______ time before the movie starts, so let's get some popcorn.

15. Tina speaks ______ Cantonese, so she was able to order food at the cafĂ©.

16. Jenny speaks ______ Cantonese, so she was unable to ask for directions.

Answer Key

1. a little    2. little    3. a little    4. little    5. little    6. a little    7. little    8. a little    9. a little    10. little    11. little    12. little    13. a little    14. a little    15. a little    16. little

Recommended Further Reading

'Few' or 'A Few'?
'Less' or 'Fewer'?

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