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June 11, 2019

Has it ever struck you that the word quite has two different meanings? And they’re almost contrary meanings. If it is applied to what is called a gradable adjective – that is to say, an adjective of which there can be degrees, like warm or nice or good – then it means to a moderate extent, and tends to imply a dilution of the quality. Something that’s quite good isn’t as good as something that’s good.

But when it is applied to an ungradable adjective – one which is all or nothing, such as true, or perfect, then it means absolutely – it is no longer a diluter but an intensifier: quite true, quite perfect, quite hopeless.

In this latter sense it used to be used on its own to denote agreement, as one might say “Absolutely” or, these days, “A hundred per cent”. You don’t hear it used in that way much today. But I remember a ghost story I read when I was a child, by Henry Cecil, which employed the word quite in this way to great effect in the final line. The story was an account, told by a stranger in an inn, about two men who fell to their deaths from a mountain. A lawyer who happened to be in the company cross-examined the raconteur and having established that there were no witnesses, triumphantly pointed out that the story could not be true; “unless,” he added facetiously, “you are the ghost of one of the men.”

“Quite,” said the stranger, and vanished.

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  1. Just half an hour ago I was reading my five-year-old a bedtime story. Some mice went to live in a magician’s garden, and said to themselves, “We will be quite safe here”. My son asked why they wouldn’t be completely safe, so we chatted about this very thing. Your blog has been well timed to clarify my thoughts on this!

  2. Craig permalink

    I read your blogs with interest Brandon, so it’s good to read one that I actually fully understand 🙂 It’s interesting that this is something I do all the time but until seeing it broken down like this I have never really noticed or thought about the change of meaning.

    It sounded like a good ghost story, more like a classic rather than a modern one. I found M R James to be the obvious master but I wondered if you have ever read any of Robert Aickmans short strories?

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Quite as an affirmative seems to have gone the same way as the similar “Rather” as used by Frank Richards.
    Another usage which has all but disappeared is to describe someone as “Quite the …” whatever it may be.

  4. Yes: quite the dandy, quite the catch, quite the expert… Nearly always used with positive words, I think. But as you say, used no more.

  5. Mark Brafield permalink

    I am sure you will remember Rex Bowley who taught history at Bancrofts. I always remember his saying what a useful word ‘somewhat’ was. I still use it sometimes today and always think of him; ‘the outcome of the Champions’ League was somewhat disappointing for Spurs’.

  6. Debbie permalink

    I once received a letter from the HR director of an American company that had offered me a job, saying that they were “quite pleased” that I had accepted it. This jarred with me, as it felt rather grudging – but it was presumably being used in the absolutely sense, although I’m still not sure that it is grammatically correct given your post, as “please” seems to be “gradeable” – he could have been very pleased, for example, about which, so of course would I have been ! Two countries divided by a common language………

    • Yes – ‘pleased’ is definitely gradeable: so ‘quite’ here can’t be used in the ‘absolutely’ sense. It waters down the compliment. No wonder you felt miffed!

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