by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2003

I’ve had to check myself several times when writing on CT recently. I’ve been tempted to use the word “quite” as a modifier of words like “good”. The trouble with this is that Americans (and perhaps all other English users outside the UK?) use the word as a modifier also but in a different sense from the way I would naturally do. If an English person is asked what they thought of a film or a play or a restaurant and they reply that it was “quite good”, they are likely to mean that it was good only to a moderate degree. Americans will intend and understand by the same phrase that something was absolutely, wholly or certainly good. If you tell me that my work is “quite good”, I’m likely to understand that as damning with faint praise. But If you are an American you probably meant to compliment me. Just to confuse matters, a British person who says they are “quite sure” does indeed mean that they are absolutely sure. I hope we’ve quite cleared up that misunderstanding.



Kieran Healy 12.30.03 at 10:44 am

I hope we’ve quite cleared up that misunderstanding.

Um, not quite.

[Smack!. Ow!]


dsquared 12.30.03 at 10:53 am

If you tell me that my work is “quite good”, I’m likely to understand that as damning with faint praise

Ahh, but if I said it was “really quite good”, then my English understatement would modify the faint praise and it would be a compliment after all.

Things would be much simpler if we followed my suggestion and simply banned all Americans from reading CT.


Chris Bertram 12.30.03 at 11:08 am

Quite so.


reuben 12.30.03 at 12:31 pm

Aww, don’t ban us from reading CT. I’d miss y’all’s posts; some of them are quite good.


Mikhel 12.30.03 at 2:45 pm

Post about cricket and football; we’ll go away.


Mrs Tilton 12.30.03 at 3:10 pm

But is that really how Americans use ‘quite’? I had always had the impression that the word, in American mouths, was not quite a superlative at all. Very mild damnation with not-too-faint praise, if you like. A thing is ‘quite good’; that is to say, it’s really rather good; not, perhaps, absolutely first-water, no; not the Platonic ideal; not stop-in-your-tracks good; not the dog’s bollocks altogether; but don’t look downhearted, it is still quite good for all that.

Have I been wrong in this all along? Perhaps an American reader will set me straight, if Daniel hasn’t scared them all away.


Zizka 12.30.03 at 3:25 pm

I’ve long been aware of the two interpretations, but had almost an opposite understanding of the geography. To me “quite good” = “pretty good” = “fairly good”. Whereas some other people think it means something like “fully good” as opposed to “minimally good”. But I thought they were British. Doesn’t “quite exhausted” mean “completely exhausted” rather than “a little exhausted”. Or “quite spoiled”?

“Quite a bit” = a big bit, more than a bit, but not an awful lot. “Quite awhile” = a long while.

Come to think of it, the word doesn’t really seem to have any meaning outside of context. Call the emergency pragmatics specialist. (Or is it semantics?)


Rosanne 12.30.03 at 4:05 pm

My Merkin intuition has “quite good” as equivalent to “really (rilly) good,” the more total sense that Chris suggests.

And don’t ban us… who will you ruthlessly mock at the CT wine tastings without your Merkin commentors?


Ophelia Benson 12.30.03 at 4:25 pm

Eh? No we don’t. Do we? I don’t anyway. ‘X is quite nice’ – one says that in a hesitant tone, and no one rushes off to make X’s acquaintance.

Well but come to think of it, I remember once, years ago, asking my brother (who is a PhD in French) whether I should translate the French modifier ‘bien’ as ‘quite’ or ‘rather’ – and he told me that Americans don’t say ‘quite’ anyway. We then proceeded to have a big argument about it, as we always do about everything. But he may have been a little right – I don’t think it’s quite as common here as it is there. Except among affected people like me.

But in any case, I’m pretty sure that when we do use it we use it to mean what Chris means. Quite nice is less nice than very nice, not more so. I’m pretty sure, quite sure, rather sure.



dsquared 12.30.03 at 4:32 pm

Just to reassure our American friends that there is no real prospect of their being banned; my proposal met with but scant support among the CT collective.


mallarme 12.30.03 at 4:40 pm

“Quite good” is not a phrase you’ll hear many Americans use as it is a bit of an affectation. Just saying it myself makes me think I should be using an English accent. Of course, I can only speak for the south. Perhaps the yankees up north use it more. As for the meaning of “quite good” it sounds like someone is surprised that something was good. I typically use “great”, “very good”, or “really good” if I want to emphasize something’s good qualities. Anyways, just my $.02.


Stentor 12.30.03 at 4:55 pm

My impression is that we Americans often use “quite” to mean “more so than you think.” So if I tell you a movie was “quite good,” I mean that I thought it was better than you seem to expect me to have thought. If I tell you it was “quite long,” that means it was longer than you thought it would be (or than I thought it would be before seeing it). So “quite” implies both “to a high degree” (because it’s used to raise the estimation from its previous level) and “to a low degree” (because it’s used when the previous estimation was already low).


reuben 12.30.03 at 5:07 pm

Growing up in the American south, I think I rarely if ever used “quite”; it sounded too affected. Now that I live in the UK, though, I use it all the time, but – just to make things complicated – not in the faintly damning (or dampening) British sense.

Instead, I use it to mean more than “pretty” but less than “pretty damn”. Thus (working our way up), “Liverpool is good. Charlton seems quite good. Chelsea is pretty damn good. And Arsenal will win the treble.”


Ophelia Benson 12.30.03 at 6:45 pm

Well, there you are then. Only among affected people like me.

Dang, there goes my shot at being president, I guess.


Joe O 12.30.03 at 6:59 pm

Stentor is right


CJ 12.30.03 at 7:08 pm

Quite – that’s a compliment.


ahem 12.30.03 at 7:30 pm

Doesn’t “quite exhausted” mean “completely exhausted” rather than “a little exhausted”. Or “quite spoiled”?

Yes, but that’s because it moderates a pejorative or ‘bad thing’. ‘Quite awful’ usually means ‘very very very awful’ in BritEnglish, though it does have echoes of some plummy Bloomsbury type saying it. Though ‘quite bad’ means ‘not completely bad’. Usually. So, yes, it’s pragmatics gone mad.

That said, ‘quite right’ is usually an endorsement, especially on its own, when it’s a pat on the back. And ‘quite the thing’, though getting a little archaic, is also approbative.

Consider it a vestige of the BritEnglish tendency for both irony and understatement.


Ophelia Benson 12.30.03 at 7:31 pm

It’s pretty (or quite) obvious that we haven’t got a clue what we mean by it! Some of us use it one way, some another, some both, some more than two – it’s a catch-all, a flexOmatic word.


Anna 12.30.03 at 8:33 pm

Now could someone explain “Republican” and “Democrat”? or are we with Alice in Wonderland now, lexically speaking?

Is there a DSM-IV for politics?


Zizka 12.30.03 at 10:36 pm

I think Stentor is right. I think that “quite” means something like “exactly” or “adequately” and can mean “fully adequate” or “barely adequate” according to context (what is in question, expectations).


clive 12.31.03 at 1:11 am

From my days as an EFL teacher, I thought the distinction was as follows (in UK or American): if quite modifies an adjective which is already at the ‘limit’, for which there is no comparative or superlative, it means ‘completely’, but if comparative or superlative is possible, it means ‘fairly’. Hence ‘quite good’ (because good can become better) means fairly good; quite excellent means ‘absolutely excellent’ because you can’t be more excellent than something else. Hope that’s cleared that up.


Ken 12.31.03 at 5:34 am

I use quite to modify an adjective in a similar fashion to the following words:

Very: Quite good
Exactly: Not quite right
Definetly: that’s quite enough

in the gradient of good, I guess it would be:

quite bad
quite good

because ‘good’ implies being better than adequate which itself implies a sort of neutral position.


Ga 12.31.03 at 6:08 am

“Quite good” = “really rather good” or “reasonably good” or “pretty good,” but “below excellent.” In my usage. A compliment, not backhanded, but on the moderated side. Not a superlative, but not grudging.

Ken above has it.


keith 12.31.03 at 12:24 pm

Reuben: Now you need to get the hang of the plural for sports teams – Chelsea *are* pretty damn good


reuben 12.31.03 at 2:39 pm


It would make my life quite a bit simpler if someone could give me a rule for when the plural is used. Is it only for sports teams? Can only the plural be used for sports teams? Is the plural used for organisations, eg Oxfam? I’m probably showing my lack of gray matter here, but in making the transition from American English to Brit, this is the most vexing difference I’ve encountered. There seem to be know set rules for when plural is used versus singular.



Zizka 12.31.03 at 7:14 pm

See, guys, we can have a nice, civil, troll-free discussion as long as we avoid topics which lead to bad feeling. The Thurmond family has recently explained to us how hurtful and uncourteous it is to bring up sensitive issues unnecessarily. So in the future let’s just not!


burner 01.01.04 at 11:37 pm

I believe that the subject is considered plural when it represents an aggregate of people. Hence, the sports team and a company are both plural. (in a press release, you’ll see Microsoft are releasing …)


burner 01.01.04 at 11:38 pm

So do Brits have a completely different interpretation of what the song “Mellow Yellow” is saying? That is, is he the fellow quite rightly mellow?


Keith M Ellis 01.02.04 at 12:57 am

I use “quite” very often, probably as an affectation. Roughly, I intend it to be closer to “very” than to a damnation with faint praise. I wasn’t aware that Brit English usage is the latter.

Where else does the British propensity for understatement and irony complicate trans-Atlantic communication?


jn 01.02.04 at 5:02 pm

As an American (Southern US), if I heard someone say, “I ate lunch at the new restaurant down the street. It was quite good.” I’d understand it at a commendation (perhaps indicating a touch of “better than I expected” per stentor’s comment). However, context (and non-verbal cues) could cause me to take it as irony: “Did you meet the new manager yet?” “Yeah, he’s quite the expert on our business!” (with rolling eyes, etc.)

Not a common turn of phrase in the circles in which I move, but also not one that I’d instinctivelty hear as damning-with-faint-praise.

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