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The trickiest word in American

Our first guest post for American English month comes from Vicki Hollett, English teacher and coursebook writer. Vicki writes a fantastic blog called Learning to speak merican.

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I’d better confess right away that I’m not a native American English speaker. If you could hear my accent, you’d spot in a jiffy that my native variety is British English. But stop, come back, because I can tell you about THE most important word to get your head around if you’re communicating with Americans. I know this because I’ve lived in the US for more than a decade now, and it’s still the word that I have to think about – every time.

Quite: It’s such a common word. Americans use it, Brits use it, and it’s the same word, right? Well no, not quite. Have a look at these sentences. Both Americans and Brits could say them all. But two of them mean different things, depending on whether an America or a Brit says them. Which ones?

1       This is quite interesting.
2       Quite fascinating, in fact.
3       I’m usually quite good at this kind of exercise.
4       But you’re quite correct. This is tricky.

One common meaning of quite in both varieties is ‘completely’. See 2 and 4 above. These two sentences mean the same in American and British English.

Fascinating and correct are both ungradable adjectives, so things are either fascinating/correct or not. There’s no half way about it. But there are other adjectives that are gradable, so for example, there can be different degrees of good or interesting. And that’s where things get complicated and quite means different things. See 1 and 3 above.

If your American boss says your work is quite good, should you be pleased or a little concerned? In British English quite good only means pretty good or fairly good, but in American English it’s much more positive. Quite good means very good, so you can give yourself a pat on the back.

And one last piece of advice for any American guys who are planning a first date with an English girl. Don’t be like one of my American friends and tell her you think she is quite pretty. He was lucky to get a second date.

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Vicki Hollett

27 Comments

  • Thanks for a great and useful post! Though I’m not living in English-speaking country and thus not immersed in English language, even me could notice the difference made by American and British people when they’re using that quite tricky word. 😀

    Thanks for your useful efforts to clarify such a beautiful language!

    Good luck!

  • It’s easy for me as an American to pick out words and phrases that sound odd from a British speaker, but it’s a whole different ball game to find the quirks in my own dialect. Thanks for the post and I’m looking forward to the rest of the month!

    -Nate

  • Thanks for this post! What do you think of the theory that “quite” can mean either “very” or “actually not very” depending on where you put the accent? Put the emphasis on the “quite” = “actually not very”, or on the adjective which follows = “very”. So, your examples 1 and 3 could mean very different things… e.g. This is quite INteresting = Wow, cool! This is QUITE interesting = Hmm, boring actually.

  • The lukewarm nature of “quite” in British English is even more true given people’s tendency to sugar the pill when making a direct assessment of someone’s work or prettiness. “Quite good/pretty” would mean really not very good/pretty at all if this is the best your boss/suitor could bring myself to say about them, so yes you should be worried. But intonation plays a role: if the stress is on the adjective, it means surprisingly good/pretty: “I thought you’d be ugly, but actually you’re quite PRETTY!” Still a pretty backhanded compliment though.

  • I think ‘quite’ is most powerful when on all its own (in Br Eng anyway):

    Student 1: ‘I thought that lecture was extrememly dull’.

    Student 2: ‘Quite’

    SR

  • Thanks for this great post, Vicki, which has certainly got people talking. There’s an awful lot to ‘quite’ and dictionaries don’t do the word full justice. From the point of view of pragmatics, the use in negatives (sense 4 in MED) is especially interesting. It’s a common device (a kind of understatement) for conveying disagreement, scepticism, or mild criticism, as in these examples from our corpus:
    But the blend of history and heartbreak doesn’t quite jell.
    “I don’t quite see things the way they do,” she said.
    The results are interesting, but they don’t quite match my original findings.
    ‘Abraham plays Sorvino’s former entomology professor, in a cameo role that doesn’t quite work.

    All these, btw, come from the American part of our corpus.

  • Oh thanks so much to everyone for chipping in.

    Nate, maybe we’ll have a British month soon and you can tell us about things that sound odd from a British speaker. I love that stuff.

    Many thanks for that link, Lynne – superb post!

    Ann, I just tested your sentences out with my ‘merican husband.
    1. This is quite INteresting
    Me (the Brit) – “Yes, with enthusiastic intonation, that sounds pretty positive.”
    Him (the ‘merican) – “Yes, that sounds positive”
    2. This is QUITE interesting
    Me (the Brit) – “Not very positive anymore”
    Him (the ‘merican) – “No, it sounds more positive, Vick, ‘cause you emphasized ‘quite’”
    Ha! – ever-separated by a common language, eh?

    Loved your conversation, Shane. Think that’s my favourite use of ‘Quite’ too. I tried it out on my husband and his verdict was “That’s not an American conversation”. And then he said something rather interesting – “We’d think it was British”

    Lovely observations, about the lukewarm nature of the British ‘quite’, Harry. And I think another thing that can play into it is understatement. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but I think bubbly displays of enthusiasm for things tend to be more common on this side of the pond, so a breathtakingly beautiful sunset might be ‘totally awesome’ over here, but just ‘quite pretty’ in the UK.

    But Americans do use ‘quite’ with negative connotations, as your corpus examples demonstrate Michael – and for understatement too. Ah, might it be that American’s will to use ‘quite’ to understate negative features, while we’ll use it to understate positive ones?

  • Thank you for this very interesting article Vicky! I teach business English here in Argentina and I simply love all your textbooks. Here we are exposed to both British and American English and that may be dangerous sometimes. Telling a British girl that she is quite pretty could end up in disaster. And what if a Britisher tells their American host that their house is so homely!

  • I feel it is quite useful to encourage learners to see there are two distinct types of adjective: normal ones, that can be modified by QUITE to suggest ‘relatively’ (e.g. good, nice, warm) and EXTREME ones, such as ‘brilliant’ or ‘boiling’, where the modification serves to mean ‘absolutely’. The word originates from the same root as QUIT, so a cup that is quite full (i.e. completely full) would not hold more liquid, so it would quit the vessel.

  • Thank you so much for the kind words, Rich. Funnily enough, I fell right into that ‘homely’ trap when I first came here. Fellow Brits, it’s an adjective you might want to avoid over here, unless you want to appear an ungrateful guest – I gather it means ‘ugly’.

    Good point Steve. The other mistake my students sometimes make with exteme adjectives is thinking they can modify them with ‘very’. And thanks for the etymology! What a fascinating connection with QUIT.

    Hope your students enjoy it Alla and thanks for stopping by.

  • Quite interesting post, there (har har har…)

    “Quite” is not a word that I really find myself using, or at least I don’t think I do ( I probably use it in the classroom but not outside of that–but who knows, perhaps my intuition about my own usage is totally wrong).

    I think my preference dialectally as far as intensifiers go is “pretty”. But it’s a similar situation. If something is “pretty good”, is that firmly positive with a hedging to seem more cool and reserved, or is that “damning with faint praise” as they say. Again, depends on the intonation–with a rising intonation it sounds more positive, and a falling one, more negative.

  • There is a particular usage of the word “quite” that I find quite interesting.
    It is in the expression “quite a few” which basically means… the exact opposite: “quite a lot”! I find fascinating that quite could transform something in its antonym.

    I am not a native English speaker, but I lived in UK for quite a while (=quite a long time). Oddly enough, in my mind the word quite has often a subtle vein of sarcasm.
    I was wondering, in the expressions “quite a few/a while”, can we consider quite as a “sarcastic” modifier?
    Does “quite a few” have the same connotation in US?

  • @andrea,
    As an American, I can confirm that the expression, “quite a few”, does in fact mean more than “a few”. My guess is that the intensifier “quite” is intensifying the effect of the “a”. Compare the two expressions “few” and “a few”:
    * He has few friends
    * He has a few friends
    In the second sentence, the speaker is saying that the number is higher than might be expected (leaving us to wonder why the speaker thinks the poor guy wouldn’t have very many friends… but that’s neither here nor there). The point is: notice the “higher than expected” effect of the indefinite article “a”. Now imagine intensifying that to “even higher than expected” and you get the equivalent of “quite a few”.

    I’m just guessing about this, of course. Someone who’s studied semantics and/or predicate logic might be able to give a more informed explanation.

  • Re; Ann van Wijgerden;
    You might be illustrating sarcasm, which often uses a word, when its opposite is implied. This kind of speech is often and unfortunatly misunderstood, without an intimate understanding of the circumstances by both parties.
    In fact it often has a very high cost whenever used in a high risk environment.

  • It seems to me (from your logic) that this article should be titled, “The trickiest word in British.”

  • I am an American, married to a Scot and we live in Australia. My pet peeve with my husband’s Scottish/British/Australian English is his habit of saying something is ‘not bad’ as a backhanded way of paying a compliment. To me, when he says a meal I prepared is ‘not bad’, I am insulted, but he meant it as a compliment. I have told him NEVER to tell any of my American friends or relatives that a meal was ‘not bad’, because in American English that’s a cowardly way of saying it was ‘not good’.

    That’s an expression you might explore and feature.

  • There’s a show on British television called “Quite Interesting” [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380136/] with Stephen Fry as the host. I’ve watched all the episodes of all the seasons, and from what I gather, it’s mostly about interesting trivia and anecdotes, misconceptions and so on.

    Since it’s a British show, I’d assume Quite here would be used in a very positive sense. In the episodes Stephen repeats the phrase “hmm … that’s Quite Interesting isn’t it” quite (very) often.

    Doesn’t this indicate that in British English Quite is actually very positive? I’m sure the producers don’t mean to say Pretty Interesting or Somewhat Interesting…

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