The trickiest word in English – Quite!

Is the meaning of the adverb quite, very or completely? It looks like a small difference but it can lead to big misunderstandings.
Sometimes quite means the same thing in British and American English, but sometimes it’s used differently.
In this video we show you
– how to use quite to mean completely
– how to use not quite (meaning not completely) to criticize someone gently or say you disagree.
– how quite can mean very in American English, but fairly or pretty in British English
– how you can sometimes tell the meaning of quite by whether it’s used with a gradable or ungradable adjectives.
Finally we have some advice for any American guys who are going on a date with a British girl.
Don’t tell her she’s quite pretty!

Click here to see more videos on British and American English.

 

The adverb quite

Hi everyone. I’m Vicki and I’m British.
And I’m Jay and I’m American and today we’re looking at a word that’s quite tricky.
No, it’s very tricky.
But that’s what I said!
No you didn’t!
I speak British English and Jay speaks American English and normally, we manage to communicate OK.
But there’s a word that causes us problems. Quite.
It’s such a common word. We both use it a lot.
But it’s the word that’s hardest for us to understand.
Sometimes we use it in the same way, but sometimes we use it differently.
And then we get confused.
Quite.
Quite?
Let’s look at some examples.

Have you finished the artwork yet?
No. I’m not quite ready. I need another five minutes.
Take your time. I’m quite happy to wait.
Do you want to go and get a coffee or something?
No, I’m quite all right thanks. I’ve had quite enough coffee today. That’s not quite correct.
Just go away!
What’s your problem?

Here are some of the things we said. ‘Quite’ is an adverb and it means ‘completely’ in all these examples. It means to the greatest possible degree – 100%. We can use it this way in British and American English
And you heard quite in two negative sentences too, where it means not completely – so almost, but not 100%. Again it can have this meaning in British and American English. We often use quite in the negative like this to criticize someone gently or to say we disagree with them.
So we might say ‘I don’t quite agree’ or ‘That’s not quite right’.
Yes, and we mean ‘I don’t agree 100%.’ or ‘You’re a little wrong’. Quite softens the disagreement.
It works like that in American and British English.
But there’s another way we use ‘quite’ that’s quite different.

So what did you think of my report?
It’s quite good.
Fantastic. I’ll send it to everybody now.
Hang on. It needs some changes.
But you said it was quite good.
Yes, but we need it to be VERY good.
Huh?

There was a misunderstanding there.
Yeah, I thought you liked my report.
Well, I thought it was fairly good or pretty good, but not very good.
But you said it was quite good. If I say that I mean very good. Quite is a forceful word.
It’s not forceful in British English. It just means to some degree.
So let me get this straight. Sometimes when you say ‘quite’ you mean completely, like me.
Yes.
But other times you just mean fairly or pretty.
Yes.
Then how can I tell what you mean?
Well, sometimes you can tell from the kind of adjective we use with quite – whether it’s gradable or ungradable.
We’d better explain that.

Gradable or ungradable

Some English adjectives are gradable, so they can be true to different degrees. For example good is gradable. Something can be very good, or fairly good, or just a little good. But other adjectives are ungradable, for example perfect. We don’t say something is very perfect or fairly perfect or a little perfect. It’s just perfect.
Here are some more examples of ungradable adjectives. Things are either dead or they’re not. People are either married or they’re not. There’s no in-between with these adjectives, so we don’t use them with ‘very’. The meanings of these adjectives already contain the idea of ‘very’.
So here’s what happens in British English. If we use ‘quite’ with an ungradable adjective, we probably mean completely. For example, ‘It’s quite perfect’. It’s 100% perfect. But if we use quite with a gradable adjective, we probably mean ‘fairly’ – so to some extent, but not very. For example, ‘It’s quite nice’ – it’s fairly nice.
So if you say ‘I’m quite tired’, you mean you’re fairly tired.
Yeah, and what about you?
I could mean that, but normally if I say I’m quite tired, I mean I’m very tired.
Pronunciation matters too. If we stress the word ‘quite’ the difference can get more marked.
I’m QUITE tired – that means I’m very very tired
I’m QUITE tired – that means I’m only fairly tired.
There’s another thing you do in British English.
What’s that?
I’ll say something and instead of saying ‘I agree’ you say ‘quite’.
Oh yes. It’s rather formal but to show we agree with someone or to show we’ve understood, we can say ‘quite’ or ‘quite so’. It just means ‘yes’.
It sounds very British.
Quite.
Let’s have a quiz question now.
OK. See if you can answer this everyone, and you Jay. If your American boss says ‘your work is quite good’, what does it mean? Jay?
If my American boss says my work is quite good, I should get a raise. They think my work is very good.
British English is different. If my British boss says my work is quite good, I’d have to ask what I’m doing wrong.
Because it’s only fairly good. Wow!
So the difference in meaning is subtle, but it can be very important.
If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it.
When I came to the US I had to stop and think when people said ‘quite’. ‘Do they mean fairly or do they mean ‘very’? I still have to stop and think sometimes.
And I’ve had to learn the difference too, so I can understand Vicki’s family and friends.
Yeah. Here’s a real example. My British friend was visiting us and meeting Jay for the first time and they were just getting to know one another and talking about their families.
I was telling her about my father and how he spoke six languages and I said ‘He was quite good at languages’.
So my British friend was surprised and she said, ‘Why are you saying that? You said he spoke six languages.’
‘Yeah, he was quite good at languages.’
So my friend was thinking, ‘He’s being derogatory about his father? That’s not nice! If you speak six languages you’re a very good linguist – not just fairly good.
And I was thinking, ‘We’ve only just met. Why is this woman being so argumentative?’ It was like she wanted to pick a fight with me for no reason.
It’s the sort of misunderstanding that can damage relationships.
Yes, it’s dangerous because you might not realise it’s happening.
And one last thing before we stop.
Yeah?
I have some advice for any American guys who are going on a date with a British girl.
What’s that?
Don’t tell her she’s quite pretty. It happened to one of my friends on her first date with an American guy.
What! He told her she was quite pretty?
Yes, he was lucky to get a second date! And that’s it for today everyone.
If you’ve enjoyed this video please share it with a friend and don’t forget to subscribe to our channel. Bye-bye now.
See you next Friday. Bye.

Click here to see more videos on British and American English.

4 thoughts on “The trickiest word in English – Quite!

  • March 29, 2019 at 8:04 pm
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    i am from china. i watch your videos on other website by accident. i quite love them so i want to watch more. but for some reasons in my country we cannot use youtube. i can open your website but cannot watch the videos. what a pity!

    Reply
    • April 4, 2019 at 11:45 am
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      Hi Feng! We’re so sorry you can’t see our videos. I’m afraid we have no suggestions to help you. I wish we did.

      Reply
  • November 16, 2019 at 8:53 pm
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    Hi, teachers,
    I read in a grammar book that we don’t say “not quite good”. We should say “not very good”. I am a bit confused as I found some expressions like:
    Not quite sure / not quite ready. So, why not “not quite good”?

    Reply
    • November 18, 2019 at 1:59 pm
      Permalink

      What an interesting question Ayman! Your grammar book is correct. We might say that something is ‘not very good’ or that it’s ‘not quite good enough’ and even ‘not that good’, so why not ‘not quite good’? I’ve no idea and wonder if anyone else knows.

      Reply

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