quite wh-

Mark Liberman over on Language Log has blogged about the following sentence, which appeared in the Guardian today:
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.)
phraseBrE hits
BrE S-initialAmE hitsAmE S-initial

quite how452

exactly how 1160

just how2770

quite why





exactly why227

just why114

quite what





exactly what3940

just what*1140


quite who





exactly who261

just who1030

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:
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.
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.

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.
"Quite" she said shortly. Ignoring the plank, she jumped of the rail and landed neatly next to him.
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.

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.


  1. Of course, "interesting" is faint praise in itself.

    Ginger Yellow

  2. This post was quite interesting :P

    If you grew up watching Tennesee Tuxedo or Underdog you would have heard the agreeable "quite" in the Commander McBragg segments - every single episode ended with McBragg saying "quite" in agreement to a compliment made by the guy he was telling his fantastic story too.

    And for some reason this also reminds me of then I had to read Frederick Douglas' autobiography and he described what his life was like when he was "quite a child." Not a very common way to say "when I was a child."

  3. Can't "quite" mean something like "Whilst I agree with that statement, it's too obvious to be worth discussing, so do get on with your point"?

  4. I think Americans are more likely to put quite immediately after the negative.

    I don't quite know who ...

    rather than

    I don't know quite who ...

    and similarly

    I don't quite understand ...

    It seems to me that we use it more as a modifier of the verb than the noun, whether the noun is a subject or object.

  5. Dearieme: Quite.

    Cathy: quite interesting point! I've lost my intuitions on such things.

  6. I am so glad you've picked up on Mark Liberman's blog because I've been mulling over it myself.

    I think there is a link between the colloq. use of quite and the Guardian text -

    'Quite', 'exactly' and 'just' are all simply modifying the wh- element. The wh- element still makes sense without the modification. So, my approach is to ask why choose to modify the wh-element at all. And then to ask why choose "Quite".

    I think we often modify the wh- element to give the text some extra rhythm. The choice of "quite" may, in the BrE context, add a hint of 'superiority' or social put-down which isn't nec. signalled by "exactly" or "just".

  7. My theory is that the Guardian is more prone to ask (rhetorical) questions than the Globe

    Were many of your quite wh- examples from the Guardian actually involved in questions? Although I had no problem with Quite who he is is a mystery, I was surprised by the acceptance of Quite who does he think he is?. I am, however, a New Zealand English speaker. My mother made the same judgements as me, and she learnt some kind of Commonwealth English from her English mother and Kiwi father when she was growing up in East Africa.


  8. They're not usually interrogatives (with a ?) (they're wh- clefts), but they presume a question that implies an opinion, if you see what I mean. For example, from the Guardian:

    Quite why this slightly embarrassing parade of praise is needed at this stage is unclear.

    Quite why heavy metal has developed such a symbiotic relationship with cinema is a matter of some debate.

    Quite why Waitrose, a good neighbour until now, wants to upset the quotidian life of Wallingford is anyone's guess.

    Searching for quite-wh-do(es) gives me these ones from the Guardian site (some are in reader comment sections or blogs).

    Quite how does the OT constitute any defence against my critique of Islam?

    So quite who do you expect to pay up to 100 for a cardboard disposable one

    Quite who is saving money here?

    It could be that my theory about opinion in newspapers is irrelevant and that the Guardian site just has more informal writing (blogging and commenting) than the Globe's.

  9. On the last comment--forgot to edit. I looked up other quite-wh-AUX combinations besides quite-wh-do(es) too, as is obvious from the last example.

  10. I'm glad that you referenced 'rather,' making it eligible for comments. I don't know if it is still the case, but the following use of 'rather' has quite interested me:

    Q: Would you like some ice cream?
    A: RaTHER! (emphasis on second syllable)

    In AmE, 'rather,' though not used by itself, seems to imply that something else is preferred.

    Is this a type of polarity? If I wouldn't say: 'I rather like ice cream,' but I would say: 'I'd rather have ice cream,' am I not making the same kind of distinction?

    As it happens, and to exemplify the problem, I do say (or at least write) things such as: 'it's rather difficult to explain,' but I don't consider them to be AmE as much as a BrE borrowing.

  11. I didn't mean to make a question of my still finding a usage interesting, but of the usage itself being current.

  12. Re: Cathy's comment: Isn't (A) "I don't quite understand how..." different from (B) "I don't understand quite how..."? Of course you could substitute "exactly" for "quite". And you could substitute "just" for "quite" in (B) but not in (A).

  13. My interpretation of the initial statement is that whereas "Exactly who..." would suggest a lack of information or specificity about the group in question, "Quite who..." carries with it a hint of sarcasm, as though the group has unwarranted pretensions of some kind.

  14. Nice post. I had never thought of "quite" used in the sentence-initial position. I would say it is infrequent in my own speech.

    I am really digging your linguistic perspective; it has been ages since I have thought about these things linguistically rather than from a translation view point.
    Thanks for the good read!

    P.S. Sorry for being this way but I can't help it, and I would want someone to point these things out to me in my own work: I think you have a small, itty bitty typo in your "Pirates" quote. :)

  15. Thanks. The quote was cut-and-pasted, so I don't think I should change anything in it. (Though it has been deleted by the original author, so I can't even verify that!)


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)