Thursday, July 31, 2008

quite

I am often asked to cover the differences between AmE and BrE use of quite as an intensifier (i.e. a modifier of adjectives that tells you 'how much'). When asked, I point people to this post. When they write back and say "I meant how it means opposite things in BrE and AmE", I reply "Read the post. All the way. To the bottom." (Go ahead and picture me at the front of a classroom. I have them quaking in their boots, I do.)

But I just have to share with you this little item that came through the door yesterday. It's from a man who looks like an over-coiffed Russell Howard who wants to be my MP (Member of Parliament). Me, I'm waiting for Russell Howard to run. Our Howard-wannabe (a member of the Conservative Party) has been "out and about on the streets of Brighton meeting as many people as possible and listening to residents' views and opinions". But he didn't meet me, so he had his lackeys litter my front hallway instead. He wants to know:
How concerned are you about the proposed NHS changes and their effects on the Royal Sussex County Hospital?

Very [] Quite [] Not at all []
So there we have it. An illustration of how BrE quite differs from AmE quite. In BrE it means 'not so much', in AmE it means 'very much'. So while it's the middle ground in this BrE survey, for an AmE speaker, the first two choices are way on one side of the scale, so no moderate choice seems to have been offered. Better Half thinks that the question is (BrE) cheeky, because the interpretation of quite depends a lot on context, in that understatement with quite can be used as a forceful statement, given the right intonation. And the influence of AmE has probably muddies the waters as well. What a politician! I look forward to seeing how the results are interpreted.

P.S. A kind reader and fellow blogger has started a page for this blog using the Blog Networks feature on Facebook. It needs more readers to confirm that it's my blog before it will take feeds from the blog, etc. So, if you want to identify with this blog on Facebook, please come by and give us a click! We can be frieeeeeends!

31 comments:

the_sybil said...

i can't get your link to work to find the facebook page, and non of the searching I'm doing is turning anything up either. Quite irritating.

Angie said...

You may need to add the Blog Networks application, then search within that. I found this blog doing this.

lynneguist said...

Thanks for trying, the_sybil. I've had a couple more hits on it, so I think someone's been able to do it. The first time I clicked on it, I didn't have Blog Networks loaded, but as the writer of a blog that had been added, maybe I had special status.

Matt said...

The survey from your MP is interesting. To my American ears, 'quite' is even a wee bit stronger than 'very,' and thus the order of choices is incorrect.

Joe said...

How do the British interpret the phrase "not quite"? In America, this means "almost but not completely".

Graham said...

I agree with BH that the survey is cheeky; while 'quite' isn't as strong an intensifier as 'very', it's certainly stronger than 'a bit', for example. There should either be this fourth option, or the 'not at all' should be amended to something weaker like 'not really'.

Unitl I read this post, I hadn't noticed there was a difference between BrE and AmE over 'quite', but Joe's definition of AmE 'not quite' works for BrE as well.

James said...

One day in my high school English class (in New Jersey), we went through some reading exercises that came from England. We had to read paragraphs and then decide whether the passage was a) very effective, b) quite effective, c) rather effective, or d) not effective. Maybe there were one or two more options. But no one knew whether "rather effective" was supposed to be more effective that "quite effective". I still don't know.

But unlike most things i

Simon said...

Does the intonation used on the word quite make a difference in AmE? In BrE, the phrase

"That's quite good!"

has a different meaning to

"that's quite good..."

...if you see what I mean.

fauxklore said...

When I get political surveys of that sort, the choices are usually given as "very," "somewhat," and "not at all."

Mrs Redboots said...

What is the American equivalent, then, if any, to "I quite like this"? And the converse, if I say to someone "Do you like that?" and they might reply, "Only quite!" meaning not very much but it's not horrible....

Howard said...

It seems to me that what 'quite' means in any sentence depends upon the context, and in the spoken language on the intonation (as Lynne notes) used. For example, "That's quite ridiculous!" means "That is completely ridiculous!" "She is quite lovely" means that she is very beautiful, while "He is quite ugly" means he is not very good-looking.

"Quite!" as a response in conversation almost always means enthusiastic assent; you could substitute "Exactly!" for it to get the same sense. But if you were to answer "Quite ..." with a doubting or uncertain intonation, it would mean "Not exactly". If in answer to whether you enjoyed a particular book, you were to answer "Quite ...", it would indicate that you enjoyed it a little, but not very much.

Um, this has been quite difficult to explain!

Howard (BrE)

bill said...

mrs. redboots:
"I quite like this." in the US, would mean, "I like this a lot"...I always assumed it meant the same in the UK.

It seems like from the blog and responses that "Quite" is one of those complicated words in the UK, whereas it is fairly straightforward in the US. I think that over here it is used more often than not in the phrase "Not Quite."

Mrs Redboots said...

Whereas here, "I quite like this" is a little more positive than "it's okay, I suppose!" but less positive than "I like this!" Probably about the same level as "It's not bad!"

Tim May said...

The interesting thing is that once could almost say that quite in BrE means the opposite of what it means in BrE, in that it can mean both a) "completely" and b) "incompletely".

Well, OK, the latter sense is more like "substantially but not completely". The former occurs mainly in the negative, not quite, and a few other contexts such as quite right and quite finished. I'm not sure if these are just set expressions or whether there are semantic criteria distinguishing a class of predicates for which quite will always be understood in sense a). It seems to me that they don't often come into conflict. Quite full could describe the same situation as Not quite full, though.

Repetition can (sometimes) force a "complete" reading: quite full vs quite, quite full.

mollymooly said...

For me (Irish) "quite" means "neither more nor less".

-no more than: quite nice
-no less than: quite brilliant
-exactly: quite what to do

lynneguist said...

On "I quite like this", I think many Americans would say "I really like this". My impression is that 'really' is more frequent in AmE than BrE--will have to research that at some point.

Margaret L said...

What about the phrase "quite mad"? Would Brits interpret this in tim may's sense a) or sense b)?

Zach said...

Margaret, I'm Australian but to me the meaning of 'Quite mad' would depend on the inflection placed on the quite.

Paul M said...

Margaret, its tricky. In the simplest sense the word is being used in the literal sense of a, completely but would likely be interpreted as, and meant to be interpreted as sense b.

However it is also used as in the form of ironic understatement so while the preceding is true, it would carry the suggestion the person that the person referred to has crossed the boundary into actual insanity ,hence a,(though this is unlikely to be literally true).
Alternatively it could be used sarcastically of someone who would like to think of themselves as really eccentric (for whom neither of the senses apply).

Boak said...

This is a great blog.

Re "quite" meaning both "completely" and "incompletely" in British English, as raised by Tim: one thing I learned when I taught (BR) English as a foreign language was that we use "quite" with absolutes to mean "completely". (an absolute being something that you can't say "very" with)

Eg: "The evening was quite sublime", or "I was quite struck-dumb". However, this kind of thing sounds rather old-fashioned, and also it doesn't help with expressions like "quite mad", where, as people have said, it all depends on the intonation.

Janet said...

Lynne, the survey is the best example of the different interpretations of "quite" in UK and US English that I've ever seen. I'm going to use that when trying to explain to my American friends and relatives.

And I've linked to your blog on Facebook. Thanks for letting us know that the link is available!

Janet

Mrs Redboots said...

On "I quite like this", I think many Americans would say "I really like this"."

Here (UK), "I really like this" is far more positive than "I quite like this".

Sili said...

As a Dane with a rather muddled English (doing my best to tend towards UK), I use "quite" a lot in IM.

To me it's pretty much interchangable with "rather". Pretty much the only response(s) I can think of when replying to le mot juste.

John Cowan said...

This reminds me of the word "jack", which can mean either "nothing" or "almost nothing", with very different consequences for polarity. See Roger Shuy's Language Log article.

Cameron said...

The German word for quite is "ganz," which can have either of the two meanings being discussed here, depending on intonation. Certainly it's more common here in the UK for quite to have the milder meaning of "fairly" or "mildly" but it can also mean completely, although as the Danish correspondent noted it feels quite old fashioned (RATHER old fashioned, of course, although veering towards REALLY old fashioned), and is not a meaning I would generally use.

Ginger Yellow said...

Quite is one of the few major BrE/AmE sense differences where I can't really put myself in the shoes of an AmE speaker. Maybe because it's so ubiquitous (in all its different senses) in BrE and apparently not so in the US. So I know the difference on paper, but I can't internalise it.

biochemist said...

Cameron has just introduced the word 'rather' - which also has two meanings:

Ra-ther! the old-fashioned upper class BrE exclamation now replaced with Absolutely!

'It's rather good' - faint praise, could also use 'quite' in place of 'rather'.

Hmm. That's where we started.....

Cameron said...

I think I'd rather see rather mean rather rather than rather.

Mrs Redboots said...

Quite!

Julie said...

I'm reading through archives, so I know I'm late to this discussion, but for others like me -- As an American from the Midwest, I think the "not completely" sense of "quite" is covered by the use of "kind of" or "sort of." I think that's the meaning of "I quite like this" mrs redboots was getting at.

n0aaa said...

There's a lengthy run of comments on the "Mind the Gap" blog on BBC America, linked from twitter. "Quite" was just one of several items. I founds this trying to get to the bottom of it. I was quite (AmE) unaware of the "quite" differences between AmE and BrE. I like the rather / kinda / sorta solutions to equivalence between the two dialects. There's a real risk of misunderstanding here! Thanks, Lynne (again) I'm quite grateful! -Jan fm Iowa