March 19, 2009
"Quite" as an NPI?
In another discussion about UK vs. US uses of "quite" (attached to a discussion about something else), Jamie says:
In American, 'quite' is often an intensifier but not as strong as 'very'. (Thus, if you're improving you can go from good to quite good to very good.)
In British it's almost exactly the opposite. It's close to 'rather' or 'pretty' (used as adverbs). So if you're improving you could go from quite good to good to very good.
On both sides of the Atlantic, it can also mean 'completely' (as when you're not quite ready). How the 'completely' meaning is related to the others is something I've always wondered about.
I wonder if that last use of 'quite' is an NPI [NB: I do not necessarily endorse Ladusaw's account, mentioned at the end of that post]. NPIs are phrases like 'at all' or 'either' that can occur only in certain environments, like after a negation or in a question. e.g.
I'm not at all ready.
Are you at all ready?
*I'm at all ready
It seems to me that the most natural uses in the UK of 'quite' to mean 'completely' are in NPI-licensing environments, like "I'm not quite ready" or "Are you quite done?" This accords with something Tad Brennan (if I remember correctly) told me when I was at Cornell last week, which is that "not quite" means the same thing in the UK as it does in the US, even if "quite" doesn't. But I don't speak UK English, so I don't know.
I thought for a moment that the constant utterances of "Quate" by Tubby Vanringham's fiancée Prudence might indicate that quite-as-completely can occur in positive contexts, but it would make sense to utter "Rather" in the same contexts, so that doesn't show that this isn't quite-as-rather.
Apropos of "quite," when I read Barbara Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment I was bemused by the description of Rupert Stonebird as "quite good-looking." It was obvious from everything else in the novel that he was just a decent-looking fellow who wouldn't stand out in the crowd. It wasn't till sometime after Bill Clinton's "quite" flap that I realized that that's what "quite good-looking" means in the UK.
Checking the link, what Chris Bertram says about quite sure would seem to undermine the thesis of this whole post. Oh well. [And he elaborates here; my new theory is that speakers of UK English are mad.]
Posted by Matt Weiner at March 19, 2009 09:22 PM
Thrilling to see you haven't quite abandoned the loyal readers of your blogs. Today at the gym two of us were deploring your lack of posts.
There are at least certain stock adjectives that can be used with quite (completely) in positive contexts in UK English. Bertram mentions sure and exquisite; there's also exhausted, ecstatic, famished, overjoyed, satisfactory.
Much seems to depend on the word being modified.
For example, Brits might be offended by It was quite nice to meet you. But they would not be offended by It was quite lovely to meet you. (I checked.)
Also: as stated in the preceding discussions, quite good is seldom used in US English in a damning way. Butpretty good in US English is similar to quite good in UK English... that is, the adverb can either positively reinforce or negatively undermine the adjective, depending on context and tone of voice.
However, there are some other values of X such that (I think) pretty X can only be used positively, e.g. pretty overwhelming, pretty conclusive, pretty extraordinary. In these cases, I think pretty has to mean to a high degree; it cannot mean either completely or to a moderate degree but not that much.
I think this is analogous to the way in which quite X may or may not be negative in UK English depending on X.
"Brits might be offended by It was quite nice to meet you. But they would not be offended by It was quite lovely to meet you. (I checked.)"
Strewth, that's confusing. I hope the Brit you offended wasn't too important.
"pretty overwhelming, pretty conclusive, pretty extraordinary. In these cases, I think pretty has to mean to a high degree; it cannot mean either completely or to a moderate degree but not that much."
But my feeling -- and perhaps this is just me wanted to make US English less confusing that UK English -- is that "pretty overwhelming" is still milder than just plain "overwhelming." It can't mean "moderately" because "moderately overwhelming" doesn't make any sense, but it still weakens it a little.
Ditto for "conclusive" -- if I say "This argument is conclusive," I mean that it leaves no doubt, but if I say "This argument is pretty conclusive," it seems like I'm actually leaving a little room for disagreement (that my opponents have to draw some unappetizing conclusions). It's not quite conclusive. It's an interesting question how "pretty" got to mean this.
Speakers of UK English are mad? don't you mean crazy?
Matt, upgrade wordpress so you don't get quite as much comment spam.
One of the discussions suggests that American English has preserved an older meaning of the use of the word, and that UK English has evolved a quite subtle set of context-dependent variations in its meaning. It's quite likely that these have to do with UK English's use of speech patterns to preserve social class structures.
What quite amuses me is that one of the comment discussions centers on whether calling a UK person's cooking "quite good" is a grievous insult, or whether Americans are barmy for not knowing that that's rude. It is only recently that the UK has adopted (and not quite fully) the idea that food should be tasty.
Hi Ben! Belated response here. Upgrading MT so I could moderate comments would be nice -- unfortunately I think that if I touch my MT template I will break every link everyone has ever made to this blog, and since I hardly ever update it doesn't seem worth messing with the existing blog to enable future blogging. Alas.