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Real World English – Quite

Real World English

Welcome to the second in our series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we will be looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context.


Quite’ is quite a frequent word in English and it’s quite important to understand what it means. However, it can be quite difficult to understand the exact meaning as it can mean different things in different contexts and when it’s used by different people.

Things you need to think about when using quite are:

  • Is it being used with a gradable or ungradable adjective?
  • Is it being used with a verb?
  • Is a British or American person using it?

All of the factors can affect the meaning, let’s look at each of them.

We use quite before an ungradable adjective (an adjective that cannot have different levels of strength) to emphasize the adjective. For example, if I said the report was quite amazing, I’m making amazing stronger by using quite.

To check whether the adjective is gradable, ask yourself if you would put the word very before it. If you wouldn’t, it’s not gradable. This means quite is probably emphasizing it.

So, if your boss told you your report was quite amazing, you should be quite happy. Or should that be very happy?

Happy is a gradable adjective. This means you can have different levels of happy. To work out what quite means with gradable adjectives, you need to think about who said it.

In British English, quite happy usually means ‘fairly happy’ as quite is used to soften the adjective after it.

In American English, quite happy is more likely to mean ‘really happy’. In the States, quite normally intensifies or strengthens the adjective.

So to work out how happy your boss is, you need to think about whether they are speaking British or American English. If your British boss is ‘quite happy’, he’s not actually that happy, but if she’s American, she’s really happy.

And what about verbs? You’ll be pleased to hear that this is more straightforward. When quite comes before a verb, it emphasizes it. If I say, I quite understand, it means I ‘fully understand’. Here, quite tells us that some state or process is complete.

So, although quite can be quite a tricky word, if you follow these simple rules you’ll be able to use it quite effectively.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time. You can catch up on the previous video and post, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Ed Pegg

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