Quite who Fatah al-Islam are, or where they came from, is a matter of dispute.Liberman finds the sentence-initial quite who very strange, preferring exactly who or just who. He suspects that it's BrE, though he shows through a search for these structures in the Guardian archives that quite who is the least common of the three even in BrE.
Quite who is no doubt less common than Just who or Exactly who, but it may be more common in speech than in writing. I approached Better Half on his way out of the shower this morning and asked him what he thought of Quite who he is is a mystery and Quite who does he think he is? His immediate reply was that they were fine things to say, but that they'd sound better spoken than they'd look written. (Then he gave me one of his 'Can I go now?' looks.)
To me, quite who sounds a bit worse than quite why, so I did a little investigation of this on my lunch hour. I haven't figured out how Liberman searched for just sentence-initial examples, so my methodology here is probably a bit different. I've searched for the following phrases on the Guardian website (representing BrE) and on the Boston Globe website (representing AmE), then looked at the first 50 and counted how many were sentence-initial. I'm counting as 'sentence initial' only those that start with an upper case letter or are preceded by a colon or semi-colon and those that are immediately preceded by just a discourse particle of some sort (e.g. Well, quite why that is...). There are many more that are clause-initial in subordinate clauses or that are complement clauses, but I'm not counting those. (*Some of these figures are more reliable than others. In particular, the just what figures include some things that weren't really sentences, but noun phrases, e.g. Just what the doctor ordered! Just what I didn't need! But scanning for capital Js was all I had time for.)
|phrase||BrE hits||BrE S-initial||AmE hits||AmE S-initial|
What's striking here (or should that be quite what's striking here?) is how much more sentence-initial quite we see in BrE. But then, almost all of the percentages are greater for BrE than AmE. My theory is that the Guardian is more prone to ask (rhetorical) questions than the Globe (since newspapers here identify more with political positions than they do in the States, and therefore aren't shy about having leading questions with telling presuppositions here and there). But the differences between the BrE quite percentages and the AmE ones are pretty severe, which seems to support Liberman's hypothesis that sentence-initial quite is a Briticism.
Liberman goes on to say:
What I can't figure out is why Americans should object to "quite who" in subject position but not elsewhere. It seems to have something to do with polarity -- thus my judgments are:When referring to polarity here, Liberman is talking about how certain words have to go or not-go with negative words like not or nobody. (For example, already goes in positive sentences, but it has to be yet in negative ones: *I haven't slept already. So already is a negative polarity item.) I favo(u)r the 'quite is not as polar in BrE as in AmE' hypothesis.
I don't know exactly who is responsible.
I know exactly who is responsible.
I don't know quite who is responsible.
*I know quite who is responsible.
Do British speakers have different rules about the scope of polarity-licensing operators? Or is (this sense of) quite not really a polarity item for our British cousins, despite the evidence in the table above? Perhaps some well-informed and sociolinguistically-inclined syntactician or semanticist will enlighten this befuddled phonetician.
Quite differs in many ways between BrE and AmE, and maybe some of these are related to Liberman's puzzle. First, there's the use of quite in BrE as a marker of agreement. Here's Robert Burchfield in Fowler's on the topic:
quite 1. A colloquial use that often puzzles or amuses visitors to Britain is the use of quite (or quite so) to express agreement (= 'I quite agree') with a previous declarative statement: e.g. 'The minister should have resigned.' 'Quite.' Other ways of expressing agreement exists (...), but quite, quite so and rather are the ones that are likely to be regarded as distinctly British by visitors.Now, I think of quite as being the way that a BrE speaker dismisses someone else while paying lip-service to agreement. Here's the kind of thing I'm thinking of, from a Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction site:
"Seishin, we should really get moving if you intend to finish this business soon" said her first mate, Victor, from the docks.In this context, the quite-sayer knows that Victor is right, but probably doesn't want to hear it from him (either because he interrupted her thinking about something else, or because she doesn't like her first mate bossing her around). Agreement quite is certainly not always said in a 'short' way, but it's a stereotypical way of using it.
"Quite" she said shortly. Ignoring the plank, she jumped of the rail and landed neatly next to him.
Second, there's the fact that quite is often (but not always, the story is complicated--see Fowler's!) used to weaken the force of an adjective in BrE, while it strengthens the force in AmE. So, a sentence like that book was quite interesting is probably enthusiastic praise in AmE, but probably a damp squib of praise in BrE.
Now, these are not (quite!) the senses of quite that are operating in Liberman's examples, nevertheless I'm wondering whether some of these facts are somehow connected.