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
Formality flexible flexible

To express "small" (size) or "young" use 小

These are fairly obvious, because most of them work as direct translations from Chinese to English.

Common Phrases

  • 小孩儿 xiǎoháirlittle child
  • 小问题 xiǎo wèntísmall problem
  • 小狗 xiǎogǒupuppy, small dog (could be either)

Example Sentences

  • 我 有 一 只 小狗Wǒ yǒu yī zhǐ xiǎogǒu.I have a puppy.
  • 她 有 一 个 小孩儿Tā yǒu yī gè xiǎoháir.She has a small child.
  • 这 是 一 个 小 问题Zhè shì yī gè xiǎo wèntí.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.

Common Phrases

  • 声音 很 shēngyīn hěn xiǎo low in volume (lit, "very little sound")
  • 雨 很 yǔ hěn xiǎo light rain (lit, "very little rain")
  • 风 很 fēng hěn xiǎolight 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.

Example Sentences

  • 雨 很 ,不用 带 伞。 Yǔ hěn xiǎo, bùyòng dài sǎn.The rain is very light. You don't need an umbrella.
  • 声音 太 ,我 听 不到。 Shēngyīn tài xiǎo le, wǒ tīng budào.The sound is so faint that I can't hear it.
  • 今天 的 风 很 Jīntiān de fēng hěn xiǎo.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.

Example Sentences

  • 我 比 你 两 岁。 Wǒ bǐ nǐ xiǎo liǎng suì.I'm two years younger than you.
  • 她 喜欢 比 她 的 男孩。 Tā xǐhuan bǐ tā de nánhái.She likes boys who are older than her.
  • 你 妹妹 还 很 吧? Nǐ mèimei hái hěn xiǎo ba?Your sister is still very young, right?
  • 谁 是 最 的 孩子? Shéi shì zuì xiǎo de háizi?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

Common Phrases

  • 朋友 很 Péngyou hěn shǎo few friends
  • 钱 很 Qián hěn shǎo very little money
  • 人 很 Rén hěn shǎo few people

Obviously, you can't use 小 for these meanings.

Example Sentences

  • 我的 钱 Wǒ de qián tài shǎo le.I have too little money.
  • 今天 来 的 人 Jīntiān lái de rén hěn shǎo.Very few people came today.
  • 我的 朋友 Wǒ de péngyou hěn shǎo.I have very few friends.

To say "seldom" or "rarely", use 少


(很)少 + Verb Phrase

Example Sentences

  • 最近 我 很 少 出去。 Zuìjìn wǒ hěn hěn shǎo chūqù.I rarely go out these days.
  • 老板 很 少 生气。 Lǎobǎn hěn shǎo shēngqì.The boss rarely gets angry.
  • 很 少 吃 肉。 hěn shǎo chī ròu.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.

  • 吃 肉。 shǎo chī ròu.Eat less meat.

Sources and further reading

AllSet Learning Wikis