In the following articles I will concentrate briefly on single words that can be confusing for non-native speakers. This time I want to discuss the word quite. The learner of English usually first meets this word in its role of modifying an adjective or adverb. For example, She is quite clever or He can play chess quite well. In such sentences quite has the meaning of fairly, to a certain extent, not very**. So, for example, She is quite clever means that on the scale of 1 (not stupid but only very slightly clever) to 100 (an absolute genius), she would be rated somewhere between 60 to 70.
However - and this is what is confusing to the learner - quite can also be used to mean very, very or completely. Take for example the sentence She sings quite beautifully. This can mean She sings fairly beautifully (60), but it can also mean She sings very, very beautifully, (i.e.95 or better on the rating scale). The way the learner has to decide which of the two meanings of quite (60 or 95) apply in any given sentence is by listening carefully to the speaker's intonation. When the speaker wants to say that the girl sings very, very beautifully, he may slightly isolate and emphasize the word quite. She sings . quite . beautifully.
(** In fact, things are not quite (!) so simple with quite. There are differences in the way American and British speakers of English use the word. Typically, for an American quite has a rating higher up the scale than for a Briton. My edition of Websters, the American dictionary, defines quite as meaning to a great extent, very. On the other hand, the British dictionary Collins Cobuild defines it as to a fairly great extent; to a greater extent than average.)
To learn more about the word quite and its uses, try answering the following questions.
1. What is the difference in meaning of the following two sentences?
2. Explain the different meanings of quite in the next two sentences:
3. Explain the meanings of the following sentences:
4. What does quite mean in the following dialogue?
5. You can say She is quite clever, but can you also say She is quite cleverer than me?
To understand the two meanings of quite in the above sentences, it is necessary to know the difference between gradable and non-gradable adjectives. A gradable adjective is one that allows a rating scale. So for the adjectives good or happy, you can be at 1 (not sad but only very slightly happy) or 100 (completely and overwhelmingly ecstatic). A non-gradable adjective is one that exists only at the very top end of the scale, e.g. perfect (= cannot be bettered = 100) or exhausted (=extremely tired = 95-100).
The word quite can be used together with a non-gradable adjective like perfect only when the intention is to emphasize the strength of that adjective.
E.g. I was quite exhausted after walking in the mountains all day! can only mean I was very, very tired; it cannot mean I was rather tired or I was a little tired but not a lot. And You are quite right can only mean You are completely right!
Quite here means You are absolutely right; I completely agree with you.