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Most of the time I use expressions such as

O meu cabelo está a ficar muito grande.

Instead of grande one can use comprido or longo. Now, in the english language, saying

My hair is getting too big.

is incorrect (as far as I know). Instead, one must use too long.

My question is then: to what extent is using grande/pequeno for hair, as correct as using longo/curto? The words long/short are used for things that are measured by length, which hair is an example of. Am I then using the Portuguese words incorrectly?

  • The most usual, standard way to say it is: cabelo curto, cabelo comprido. It just ain't that complicated. – Lambie Nov 4 '16 at 15:46
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Using grande with respect to hair is perfectly fine. That comprido and longo are more specific when talking about length is no objection: you don’t determine correctness in language the way you derive a theorem from axioms in Mathematics. In language usage is key. And that you don’t use big for hair just shows that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the usages of big and grande; nor would there have to be one. And if you want authority’s backup, here is grande in Aulete:

3 Comprido, longo (cabelos grandes)

The same does not go for pequeno. The opposite of cabelo grande/comprido/longo is cabelo curto, not cabelo pequeno—it’s just the way people speak. Cabelo longo and cabelo comprido are synonyms, but in Portugal you don’t much hear longo with respect to hair in general conversation.

Now from my experience in Portugal there’s considerable overlap between the usage of comprido and grande with respect to hair, but they’re not fully interchangeable. If a woman has hair coming down her back, people are a lot more likely to say mulher de cabelo comprido rather than mulher de cabelo grande; the same for a man with hair coming to his shoulders—comprido is a relative thing. You’re more likely to use grande of a typical, shortish, man or boy’s hair when his hair is longer than his usual or you think he needs a haircut, as in the OP’s example sentence:

O meu cabelo está a ficar grande

Now, one reason language is not like Maths, is that language is a lot more complex and a lot more intuitive. This means that something you’ve been saying your whole life may not make much sense when you think about it for the first time, but there might actually be some sense in it. Cabelo, as hair in English, can mean an individual hair or the whole mass of hair on your scalp. Now how would you measure the length of a typical man’s mass of hair? From the forehead to the back of the neck? Clearly it is not the length of individual hairs. So maybe this is why people first started to use grande when talking of a typical man’s (mass of) hair, but tend to use comprido when talking about hair coming down to the shoulders, when length becomes a more obvious feature.

  • 2
    Though this answer is very clarifying and complete, it was your last paragraph that made me have an aha! moment. Indeed, it is when I want to say that the mass of hair that abounds around my skull is getting out of proportions that I use the word big. Makes perfect sense. Thank you! – Vitor Nov 4 '16 at 20:13
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No, "cabelo longo/cabelos longos" and "cabelo está grande" are not always interchangeable. In spoken pt-BR the following usage is more likely to be heard:

  • If your hair length is like Obama's (or Tom Cruise's) and it needs cutting, you would say: "Meu cabelo tá grande. Preciso cortar." Note that you don't say "I must have it cut" in Portuguese. You simply say "I must cut it" ("preciso cortar")

  • If you hair length is like Michelle's (or Cristina Branco's) and you think it needs cutting, you'd say: "Meu cabelo tá muito comprido/longo. Acho que vou cortar"

  • If your hair length is like Angela Merkel's...well, you might say either.

Those seem to be the most prevalent phrases, but you may also hear:

  • "Meu cabelo está muito comprido" for short hair.
  • "Meu cabelo está longo demais"
  • "Teu cabelo tá muito grande, cara. Vai cortar." (this would be unusual for long hair)
  • "Meu cabelo já está precisando cortar/...já está precisando de um corte."

When my own hair needs cutting, I usually say: "meu cabelo já está bem grande, tenho que ir ao barbeiro".

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Normally use Cabelo longo or cabelo curto, but in popular you can hear sometimes Cabelo grande ou cabelo pequeno. I guess that's incorrect this sentence.

  • O inglês não está muito bom... não se percebe o que queres responder. Se escreveres também em português, podemos ajudar-te com o inglês. – ANeves Nov 4 '16 at 12:33

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