Comparing "shao" and "xiao"
Both 少 and 小 can translated to mean “little”. In this sense 少 means “little” as small in quantity or number, while 小 means “little” as small in size or magnitude. Yet, each has distinct uses as 少 can also mean “seldom”, “few”, or “less”, and 小 can also mean “young”, “minor”, or “petty”.
|少 (shǎo)||小 (xiǎo)|
|Meaning||small (quantity or number), seldom, few, less||small (size or magnitude), young, minor, petty|
|Part of Speech||adjective||adjective|
- 1 To express "small" (size) or "young" use 小
- 2 To express "small" in magnitude learn set phrases
- 3 To express "young" as an adjective use 小
- 4 To say "few" or "small" in quantity or number, use 少
- 5 To say "seldom" or "rarely", use 少
- 6 Sources and further reading
To express "small" (size) or "young" use 小
These are fairly obvious, because most of them work as direct translations from Chinese to English.
- 小孩儿 little child
- 小问题 small problem
- 小狗 puppy, small dog (could be either)
- 我 有 一 只 小狗。 I have a puppy.
- 她 有 一 个 小孩儿。 She has a small child.
- 这 是 一 个 小 问题。 This is a small problem.
To express "small" in magnitude learn set phrases
These are a bit tricky because they don't translate directly into English using the word "small" or little, but you nevertheless have to learn them. We won't cover all of these phrases here; we'll just share some of the more common ones.
- 声音 很 小low in volume (lit, "very little sound")
- 雨 很 小light rain (lit, "very little rain")
- 风 很 小light wind (lit, "very little wind")
Don't use 少 for these meanings. You'll learn more of these later, but as an elementary learner, just being aware of the issue is enough.
- 雨 很 小，不用 带 伞。 The rain is very light. You don't need an umbrella.
- 声音 太 小 了，我 听 不到。 The sound is so faint that I can't hear it.
- 今天 的 风 很 小。 The wind was very light today.
To express "young" as an adjective use 小
This one you need to watch out for, because as a speaker of English, you're going to want to translate "young" as 年轻 (niánqīng), but in fact 年轻 (niánqīng) only works as the opposite of old. So if you just want to say you're slightly younger than someone else (maybe by a year), you need to use 小. If you use 年轻, you're implying that the other person is old.
- 我 比 你 小 两 岁。 I'm two years younger than you.
- 她 喜欢 比 她 大的 男孩。 She likes boys who are older than her.
- 你 妹妹 还 很 小 吧？ Your sister is still very young, right?
- 谁 是 最 小 的 孩子？ Who is the youngest child?
少 only means "young" when used in certain nouns
Meanwhile, 少 can also be used to mean "young," but only in set words which you'll learn later, such as 少年 (shàonián) or 少女 (shàonǚ). In these words, 少 is pronounced fourth tone ("shào") rather than the usual third tone ("shǎo").
To say "few" or "small" in quantity or number, use 少
- 朋友 很 少few friends
- 钱 很 少very little money
- 人 很 少few people
Obviously, you can't use 小 for these meanings.
- 我的 钱 太 少 了。 I have too little money.
- 今天 来 的 人 很 少。 Very few people came today.
- 我的 朋友 很 少。 I have very few friends.
To say "seldom" or "rarely", use 少
（很）少 + Verb Phrase
- 最近 我 很 少 出去。 I rarely go out these days.
- 老板 很 少 生气。 The boss rarely gets angry.
- 他 很 少 吃 肉。 He seldom eats meat.
少 also has a usage that comes before verbs when means (to do something) "less." This is an intermediate (B1) grammar point which we won't go into here.
- 你 少 吃 肉。 Eat less meat.
Sources and further reading
AllSet Learning Wikis
- Doing something less with "shao" (Chinese Grammar Wiki)