As part of an answer on another StackExchange site, I have a sentence reading, in part, "[A religious manual] which has quite a long section on [the subject of the question] says ..."

I was looking at this construction and thinking about whether I should say quite a long section or a quite long section—they seem to mean the same thing. Then I began wondering about the construction "quite a[n] [adjective]" in general. It looks as if I can say something is quite a large X or a quite large X; quite a long X or a quite long X; but, for example, neither *quite a purple X nor *a quite purple X.

I'm trying to solidify in my mind:

  1. The rules governing when I can say quite a[n] [adjective] [noun] in the first place
  2. The rules governing when I can invert this to a quite [adjective ] [noun]
  3. Whether there are any other adverbs besides quite which can be inverted in this way.

Is there a name for this inversion? What sorts of elements does it apply to?

  • Google finds quite a few hits for "quite a red" and "quite a purple", so I wouldn't call it ungrammatical. – Peter Shor Jul 7 '14 at 15:19
  • That's interesting. I had no hesitation in calling this ungrammatical initially, because it seems to be ungrammatical in my idiolect - it still seems a very strange usage to me, but I suppose others do use it. – Matt Gutting Jul 7 '14 at 15:24
  • To me, it doesn't seem like there's anything wrong with it. – Peter Shor Jul 7 '14 at 15:25
  • Perhaps not to you; but it surprised me. What about the other elements of the question? – Matt Gutting Jul 7 '14 at 15:38
  • 1
    Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/26628/… – user66974 Jul 7 '14 at 17:15

The word quite describes the degree of intensity to which the adjective modifies the noun. If I say that something is quite big, then it should be understood to mean that the thing is bigger than many things but not as big as it could be. It might be less common to discuss varying degrees of purple, but I don't think I would call it ungrammatical to do so. I would say that the answer to your first question is that you can say 'quite a(n) x' any time the adjective can have its intensity modified. I can't think of an example where I could say 'a very x' and not 'quite a(n) x' (assuming very to mean 'to a great degree' and not its alternate meaning).

  • Can "a quite" be inverted to "quite a" in all such cases? – Matt Gutting Jul 7 '14 at 21:51
  • This requires some serious and detailed analysis. One of the first things to consider is that the secondary/degree modifier 'quite' has contrasting meanings: It is quite easy = It is fairly easy // He was quite dead = He was stone dead. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 7 '14 at 23:38

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