1. Quite is a highly mobile word with a wide range of uses qualifying adjectives and adverbs (quite heavy / quite often), singular nouns (quite a lot), and verbs (We quite understand / I'd quite like to). It causes difficulty because it has two branches of meaning which are not always distinguishable, especially in print which lacks the support of voice intonation. In idiomatic uses, the sense intended is not always clearly one or the other but varies on a scale between them. The two meanings are (1) the older ‘stronger’ meaning ‘completely, entirely’

• (You are a humourist…Quite a humourist —Jane Austen, 1816)

which remains the dominant sense in AmE but tends to be restricted to set expressions in BrE (e.g. I quite agree), and (2) the ‘weaker’ meaning ‘rather, fairly’ which emerged in the 19c and is now the dominant meaning in BrE (The music was at times quite loud / We quite like what you have done).
2. When quite qualifies adjectives and adverbs, there is a broad distinction in usage in that the weaker meaning normally occurs with so-called ‘gradable’ adjectives (those that can be qualified by more, very, somewhat, etc.) such as cheap, good, bad, heavy, interesting, large, small (and where appropriate the corresponding adverbs cheaply, well, badly, interestingly, etc.), whereas the stronger meaning occurs with non-gradable or ‘absolute’ adjectives that denote all-or-nothing concepts such as different, enough, excellent, impossible (and the adverbs differently, enough, excellently, impossibly). So quite good will normally mean ‘fairly good’ whereas quite different will normally mean ‘entirely different’. However, this distinction is not watertight, and examples can readily be found (especially with adverbs) which either leave the choice of meaning unclear or suggest a meaning somewhere between the two extremes (as more idiomatic uses often tend to):

• The actual writing style of agony columns has changed quite noticeably over the years —P. Makins, 1975

She has become, both figuratively and quite literally speaking, the absent subjectArt Bulletin, 2001.

3. The use of quite with a verb is much more common in BrE than in AmE, and can have either the stronger meaning (I quite agree = I agree entirely / We quite understand = we understand completely) or the weaker meaning (They'd quite like to come = they'd rather like to come). The choice of meaning is entirely dependent on the type of verb being used.
4. When preceded by a negative (not, never, etc.), quite has the stronger meaning:

• A bona fide kook who is never quite able to get in gear till he finally dies paddling his canoe across the Atlantic —Publishers Weekly, 1973

• We should not be quite so narrow-minded, blinkered and xenophobic about the rest of the world —Hansard, 1992

• Bailey's production is very hot in the first half but crashes to a halt with a bit of design business that is as ludicrous as it is spectacular. It never quite recovers —Guardian Unlimited, 2004 [OEC].

5. The combination quite a (or an) followed by a noun (without an adjective between) is an Americanism that has extended into BrE and can refer to quantity or quality (or both):

• Occasionally he collects quite a crowd as he sits there cross-legged and expounds his philosophy —Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1975

• The killings do ensure that we understand Frank's desire for vengeance, but this is overdoing it by quite a margin —Sofia Echo, 2004 [OEC].

When an adjective or adverb comes between quite a (or an) and the noun, quite tends more towards the weaker meaning:

• The death of Wyatt's father in 1818 left him quite a wealthy man —Dictionary of National Biography, 1993.

But compare the following, in which the order a quite + adjective (or adverb) suggests a stronger, more positive meaning:

• The items are programmed in a quite interesting way —Gramophone, 1977.

6. The use of quite as a reply expressing agreement or confirmation is a characteristic of BrE:

• ‘No takers,’ I said. ‘Quite. By the way, I'm sorry to say “quite” all the time but…my work lies amongst Americans and they expect Englishmen to say it.’ —K. Bonfiglioli, 1976.

7. It is clearly better to regard quite as operating in the realm of idiom rather than of distinct word sense, and as drawing on a range of meaning that varies subtly between the extremes of the traditionally distinguished ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ meanings.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • quite — quite; mes·quite; re·quite; …   English syllables

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