Why 'quite' can be quite confusing

I've just finished reading a novel called The Fire Worm, by Ian Watson, and this passage brought back a memory:

In the end, Brenda had settled on her green tartan skirt and boots, accompanied by a high-necked, long-sleeved, Chinese-style blouse in white silk, with a white woollen shawl in case of chills.

John seemed to approve of her outfit. He had just admitted Tony to the Volvo. Scanning Brenda up and down, he nodded.

"You look quite elegant, my dear."

Quite? Perhaps he was using the word in some old-fashioned sense. Absolutely elegant. Her own parents had thought so. And he had said 'my dear'.

When I was teaching English as a foreign language in Russia, I remember explaining how 'quite' could mean either 'fairly' or 'absolutely', depending on the type of adjective it was modifying. Compare 'quite interesting' and 'quite fascinating', for example.

I think the textbook I used talked of 'weak' and 'strong' adjectives, but a quick Google search suggests these are more commonly called 'gradable' and 'non-gradable' respectively.

However, I wouldn't class 'elegant' as a non-gradable adjective (and neither would 1.4 million Google results for "very elegant"), so what's going on here?

The OED says that the use of 'quite' "as an emphasizer: actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably" isn't confined to non-gradable adjectives, so I think that accounts for 'quite elegant'.

It adds that some of the senses of 'quite' can be difficult to distinguish "except when used with non-gradable adjectives", which is what the character of Brenda picks up on in the extract from The Fire Worm.


lynneguist said...

Of course, it's interpreted differently in American and British Englishes as well, which makes it quite quite confusing.

I wrote a little about it, in the context of writing about another use of 'quite' over here.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Can I quote from your blog post? It's quite relevant:

"There's the fact that quite is often (but not always, the story is complicated--see Fowler's!) used to weaken the force of an adjective in BrE, while it strengthens the force in AmE. So, a sentence like that book was quite interesting is probably enthusiastic praise in AmE, but probably a damp squib of praise in BrE."

Incidentally, Fowler's refers to 'gradeable' and 'non-gradeable' adjectives (note the spelling).

m said...

Perhaps the use of 'quite' in the quote also is affected by the English culture's penchant for understatement. If so, quite may not actually mean anything.