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I am a native British English speaker. I know how and when to use the following expressions. However I am finding it difficult to explain the difference.

  1. John's quite a hero.

  2. John's quite the hero.

On the face of it, the second means that John is somehow the only hero or that some hero has previously been mentioned. Yet in actual fact it means the same as the first.

I find that I cannot justify the usage of a definite article in (2) and yet it is a common idiom that I have used myself. Can anyone help me?

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    Offhand I'd say the former indicates that John is one of the great ones while the latter implies that he is the greatest. Let's see what the experts have to say about it. I'm a bit confused about something very similar (I think): "Pass me the sugar, there's a good fellow" vs "Pass me the sugar, that's a good fellow." Which one is correct? Oh, the mystery of life ... – Ricky Oct 25 '15 at 22:27
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    Does it help or hinder this discussion if I suggest an equally valid reading of "John's quite a little man" is that John (and let's presume an adult) is quite short, that's to say, as in "Don't we need to provide larger clothes?", "No, John's quite a little man." Is using the variation '..quite the little man.' really not just an attempt to eliminate the ambiguity? – John Mack Oct 25 '15 at 22:30
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    I think they basically say the same thing. But the second one quite the hero could possibly have a sarcastic reading. Indeed both could, but I think the second would be more likely to be taken in that way. – WS2 Oct 25 '15 at 22:38
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    @chasly, WS2: The likelihood of the definite article version being sarcastic is greater simply because it's less common phrasing. Whenever that happens, we look for some reason. Usually, that reason will imply that the actual intended meaning is something other than the normal meaning of the normal phrasing. Sarcasm is an obvious reason, so we're inclined to go with it. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '15 at 22:49
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    "... quite a hero" seems to be a simple prosaic statement while "... quite the hero" has more emotion behind it, whether admiration or sarcasm. – Lawrence Oct 25 '15 at 22:57
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I think that quite the hero is nearly obsolete, and tends to have a somewhat ironic, or patronising, tone, absent from quite a hero.

(I took it that you did not mean "quite THE hero" that some others have assumed).

  • I often hear this said ironically, which, of course, makes it mean the opposite of what it says literally. I find online "Donald Trump is quite the lyricist!" introducing singer/songwriter Josh Groban's performance on an American talk show putting Donald Trump's tweets to music. Of course, this makes Trump sound even more ridiculous, hardly a decent "lyricist." – deadrat Oct 26 '15 at 4:16
  • I don't really think He's quite the romantic, for example, is anywhere near "obsolete". But the general format is less common than it used to be, which may augment the sarcastic/patronising associations of the usage. Of course, my example doesn't even need an article (He's quite romantic is a bog-standard adjectival usage), so choosing to include one automatically implies (often, "mock") "poetic, oratorical" delivery. – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '15 at 13:46
  • I would add "affectionate" as another possible affect (!) implied. – Colin Fine Oct 26 '15 at 19:07
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I think the second form combines a common idiomatic expression with the rhetorical device of synecdoche. See this answer from a related question. The way that I read and understand "John's quite the hero" is that John truly lives up to the paragon or exemplar or paradigmatic (or specific) instance of "the hero". In contrast, "John's quite a hero" is more subdued and replaces a comparison to a singularity (as denoted by "the hero") with group membership (as denoted by "a hero").

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I suspect the answer is lurking in the question, but the addition of the word 'quite' is clouding the issue.

Try 'John's a hero' alongside 'John's the hero'. The first, 'a hero' carries an implication that the quality of heroism in John is an assessment or judgement made and held by the person speaking. Whereas, the second version 'the hero' carries an implication that this is a title of acclaim, given and held to be true by the speaker AND others, or perhaps only by others (when said with a certain dismissive inflection), or perhaps by nobody (when said sarcastically).

Essentially it's a subtle shift in meaning from a personally held judgement of quality which doesn't carry so much weight because it remains subjective, to a recognition of a shared (and usually more emphatic and influential) judgement of many. The dismissive and ironic versions follow naturally.

In a dismissive sense, the speaker might even do that gesture with the fingers in the air to indicate quote marks around the words 'the hero'. But in the first two senses ('a hero', and 'the hero') there is no special emphasis in speech.

Perhaps in American idiom the distinction is clearer. One might say, "John's a man" which might be stating the obvious, or a contraction of "John's a (grown-up) man". But it is obviously different and less emphatic than saying "John is -the man-", or "He's de man" in vernacular. The latter clearly suggest a public profile and acclaim.

The use of 'quite' is, I suspect, more of a British thing these days, but very few would recognize it is the same word as 'quit', as is 'quitted', 'quieted' or 'acquitted' which is essentially to say 'resolved', 'settled' or 'accounted for'. The original Latin for 'quit' suggesting 'quietening' or 'settling' was applied equally to natural events (which were attributed to relations between the Gods, or between the Gods and man) and to human relations and obligations and debts. Eventually to 'quit something' was to settle or state the account of something, or keep a 'good tab' (a credit standing or rating). So to 'acquit yourself well' was to be in 'good standing', and for something to be 'quite' was to suggest that the accounts had been audited and whatever was 'quite ....' was something that had been calculated and accounted.

In saying 'quite' the speaker lends a subtle level of abstraction to the statement or value that follows. To say 'he is quite a hero' is essentially to say 'he is a hero by my calculation'. And 'he is quite the hero' comes out as, 'he is the hero by popular account(ing)'. Rather than suggesting that 'calculation or accounting' makes it even more irrefutable and certain (as we'd expect), there's a very faint suggestion of a modest or muted result. The assessment is not drawn from the passion or emotive effect on the speaker or public, but derived from the somewhat dry 'book of accounts of human actions and intentions'. It is a way that British speakers might keep emotions at bay in their speech, as in:

"Carruthers, our chaps have just climbed Everest backwards, what do you say to that?!"
"Well yes old bean, quite."

In the case of a parent speaking of their child, the addition of 'quite' allows the preservation (or simulation of) some kind of objectivity and (perhaps false) modesty. They are saying, "It is not because I say it is so, or because I feel it is so, but because it is accounted (and audited) and this is the result that has been tallied up." All of this dissimulation is largely alien to American English I suspect, and certainly to Australian English.

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My understanding is that "quite a hero" is the more neutral of the two phrases, whereas "quite the hero" expresses more novelty/unexpectedness, or a higher degree of heroism.

For an example that feels clearer to me:
"John is quite a pianist" says merely that John is solidly accomplished in the field.
"John is quite the pianist" almost begs for an exclamation mark, doesn't it? It sounds like the speaker is surprised at the magnitude of John's accomplishment, or that the listener should be surprised. And yes, that makes it more likely to be used sarcastically.

I don't think it can be analyzed in terms of the general semantic difference between the and a alone. It's just the way this phrase works.

(Non-native speaker here, and without particular connections to any one dialect.)

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Perhaps an illustration would help.

In American English, you can pronounce the word the in two ways: thē before a vowel, and thə before a consonant. If, however, you want to single out something or someone that/who is perhaps the epitome, you use the thē pronunciation even before a consonant. For example,

Richard is a great--if not thē greatest--motivational speaker working today.

I'm not saying the pronunciation is correct, but Americans do use it as a way of signaling someone or something is the epitome. In my sentence, I stared out saying Richard was great, and then I promoted him to thē greatest of motivational speakers. (Granted, my exemplar changes the word great to the word greatest, whereas your second exemplar keeps the words little and man the same.)

Your second sentence seems to function similarly. Whereas the first sentence is a lovely compliment, to be sure, the second sentence puts little Johnny up on a pedestal as the epitome of young manhood. A Brit would not likely pronounce the word the, thē. The word does, however, serve to indicate the exemplary, man-like behavior of the young boy, in a way in which the word a does not.

  • You know I am beginning to think that the idiom I am describing is purely British. In fact the definite article is not emphasised at all. If any words are stressed, they are 'quite' and 'hero'. Or have I just misunderstood. I always get annoyed that we cannot indicate tone of voice in text! – chasly from UK Oct 25 '15 at 22:49
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    I don't think the pronunciation of the has anything to do with the usage under consideration. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '15 at 22:50
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    @ColinFine: Again, along with you and Fumble I agree that stress is not an issue with chasly's question. But the use of the word THE (as opposed to the word A) IS! Just as the word THE in American English can indicate epitome, so also in British English, the word THE can, I am suggesting, indicate epitome. Don – rhetorician Oct 26 '15 at 0:27
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    I agree with rhetorician (and all the people he/she agrees with!) Rhetorician's point holds true without the need for spoken emphasis. The 'the' is essentially turning an 'individual judgement' into a 'title by popular acclaim', and a relative observation into an epitome. If the bolded text that rhetorician used to highlight the elements of text in the statements suggests 'shouting' or 'heavy emphasis' that would be unfortunate - I'm sure that wasn't intended and of course it would be quite contrary to the famous British tendency to artless understatement – John Mack Oct 26 '15 at 1:56
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    The validity (and value) of Epitome as an explanation (as suggested by rhetorician) is being submerged under the discussion about emphasis (as used by rhetorician to illustrate the point, but not at all central to the point). Epitome is not the only element of this (moismailzai made the point about the subjectivity of 'a' and the acclamative nature of 'the' much more succinctly that I) but it is - I believe - 50% of the answer to chasly's puzzle. – John Mack Oct 26 '15 at 2:13

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