X v Y: Quite ambiguous

Continuing Glosso’s “X v Y” series: when does quite mean a bit, and when does it mean a lot?

Can you think of a word that means one thing and its exact opposite, depending on the context in which it is used?

Pity foreigners learning English who try to understand the word “quite”.

Sometimes “quite” means a bit, but not very.  If a meal is “quite good,” it is only all right.  If a dress is “quite cheap,” it is not a bargain.

At other times, “quite” means extremely.  If you say you are “quite sure,” you mean you are absolutely certain.   If the opera was “quite superb,” that is a superlative, not a qualification.   And if you are asked if you are “quite satisfied,” the questioner wants to know if you are completely happy.

So “quite” means two, er, quite different things, depending on context and intonation.  There seems to be no rule that enables a foreigner to distinguish these two different meanings.

Are there any other words that mean one thing and the opposite?

Post courtesy my brother Owen – a Brit.

Postscript from Louise – an Ameri-Brit:

To add to the ambiguity, there is ‘quite’ a difference in the use of the word “quite” between Americans and Brits.  From the Macmillan Dictionary:

“In British English quite usually means ‘fairly’: The film was quite enjoyable, although some of the acting was weak. When American speakers say quite, they usually mean ‘very’: We’ve examined the figures quite thoroughly. Speakers of British English sometimes use quite to mean ‘very’, but only before words with an extreme meaning: The whole experience was quite amazing.”

It’s quite a word.

Was Mary very contrary, or just a bit?

First posted March 2011.

One thought on “X v Y: Quite ambiguous

  1. Pingback: 20 words that haven’t crossed the pond « Words, Phrases & Expressions « Glossophilia

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