“Quite” seems a very British word.  It’s used a lot here.  Americans think of the sophisticated Englishman in the movies saying a bitingly sarcastic “quite” in response to… probably something an American said.  It’s used often in common speech as well.

As an American coming to Britain, I used the word “quite” more than I did in the US as I heard it used all around me and I wanted to fit in.  But it was only after several years in the country that I realized I was often using it wrong.

When used by itself, it still means to emphasize and agree strongly with what was just said, or is meant with sarcasm to mean the opposite.  And in many other ways it’s used as Americans would expect, as when someone says “It’s been quite a day” or “He was quite red in the face over that embarrassing episode.”  However, when the quality “quite” refers to can be on a range from extreme to minimal, “quite” serves to reduce or moderate the quality.

For example, a British female friend was upset some years ago when her American boyfriend at the time met her mother and later declared her “quite nice.”  To British ears this is like “Your mom is sort of nice” or “Your mom is a little nice.”  Not very nice.

It can lead to misunderstandings in all kind of situations.  If a Brit says “I’m quite hungry,” it doesn’t mean they’re starving as it would in the US.  It means they’re a bit peckish.

If they say “I’m quite angry with you,” it doesn’t mean they’re about to storm out.  They’ll probably just pout or sulk for a bit and then get over it.  These things are important.

And for you Brits, if your American friend says “I’m quite concerned about your drinking” then you better listen up, because they are very concerned.  And most of you do have a quite serious drinking problem!

Now, Americans may point out that the British use of “quite” is inconsistent.  Sometimes it means emphasis while other times it means moderation.  But if there’s one thing living in another country has taught me, constantly looking for contradictions can make life quite a bit harder.


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