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How to use “dà” and “xiǎo” in Chinese

Chinese characters, learning Chinese, Chinese grammar

大 (dà) and 小 (xiǎo) are two common Chinese characters that can not only be used in their own, but they also appear in many common words.



Below, this article will introduce these two characters, as well as how to use them.



Basic meaning and pronunciation of 大


The basic meaning of this character is "big" and it is pronounced "dà". This character is mostly used for physical size, as can be seen in the following sentences:




tā de fángzi bú dà.

His house is not big.



dìqiú hěn dà.

The earth is big.


Note that simply translating 大 into "big" isn't going to work in all cases. Here are some examples where you can use 大 in Chinese, but where we wouldn't use "big" in English.




nǐ duō dà?

How old are you?

(literally: how big are you?)



jīntiān tàiyang hěn dà.

It's sunny today.

(literally: the sun is big today)


In other words, you need to learn in which cases you can and should use 大 to indicate a high degree. Other weather phenomena are also okay, so the wind is "big" and rain can be "big" too in Chinese.



Common words with 大


Here are a few common words that contain 大:



大家 (dàjiā ) – everybody (lit: big + home)

大人 (dàrén) – adult; grown-up (lit: big + person)

大学 (dàxué) – university (lit: big + study, compare 小学)

大陆 (dàlù) – continent; Mainland (China) (lit: big + land)


These are good examples of why words are actually not that difficult to learn in Chinese. If you know what the component characters mean, you might not be able to guess the meaning of the words you've never seen before, but it's certainly easier to remember!



Alternative pronunciation: 大 (dài)


Many Chinese characters have multiple pronunciations and 大 is one of them. The pronunciation and meaning given above is the most common one, but there is a second reading "dài", mostly seen in the word 大夫 (dàifu, doctor).



You should learn this word "大夫" for "doctor" rather than learning this particular pronunciation for 大. You can safely assume that all other cases of 大 are pronounced "dà".



Basic meaning and pronunciation of 小


The character is mostly used for physical size, but can also be used for more abstract meanings with the meaning "to a small degree":

这个字大部分用于形容物理尺寸,但是也可以用于"to a small degree"这样较为抽象的意思。



zhège píngguǒ hěn xiǎo.

This apple is small.



wǒ xiǎo shíhou bù xǐhuan yóuyǒng.

I didn't like swimming when I was small.


Note that as is the case with 大, you need to learn when it can and when it can't be translated to "small" and "big" respectively. For example, in Chinese, it's perfectly okay to say that the rain is small and that my age is small, whereas in English, we wouldn't do that.



Here is one example of more abstract use:




duì wǒ de yǐngxiǎng hěn xiǎo.

It doesn't influence me much. (lit: the influence towards me is small)


Common words with 小


Here are a few common words that contain 小:



小时 (xiǎoshí) – hour (lit: small + time)

大小 (dàxiǎo) – size (lit: big + small)

小学 (xiǎoxué) – primary school (lit: small + study, compare 大学)

小心 (xiǎoxīn) – careful; watch out (lit: small + heart)


The difference between 小 and 少


A common question from beginners is what the difference between 小 and 少 is. These two characters are very similar, both in visual appearance and in meaning. 小 means "small" (physical size) and is the opposite of 大 (dà) "big". 少 means "few" (in number) and is the opposite of 多 (duō) "many". Thus, if you're counting something, it should be 少, but if you're talking about size, it should be 小 instead.

对于初学者,一个常见的疑问就是"小"和"少"的区别。这两个字在字形和意思上都非常相似。"小"的意思是"small" (物理尺寸),是"大 (big)"的反义词。"少"的意思是"few" (数量),是"多 (many)"的反义词。因此,如果你想计算某物,应该用的是"少",不过要是你想描述尺寸,用到的反而是"小"。


Translated from: about education

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