In looking at the answers for this question, Using "quite" with a noun, it occurred to me that "quite," although having a dictionary definition, might be used differently by AmE and BrE speakers such that it is not correct to speak about "the correct" use of "quite."

Case in point, WS2's example sentence:

There were quite a few hundred at the gathering

to my ear (AmE) sounds "wrong," but in the UK this might be everyday usage.

Also the following:

There were quite 50 people at the house

is something I would express using about / actually / around instead of quite.

  • Is there a significant usage difference between BrE and AmE usage of "quite?"

This could be viewed as "opinion based" but perhaps there is an objective answer.

  • 1
    So what is your question?
    – Ricky
    Oct 26 '15 at 2:20
  • I am sure there are differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in the usage of quite, but were quite [number] doesn't seem to be one. See Ngram. There's a big difference in its frequency between the 1930s and the 1990s, though, so although it may sound wrong to us now, it didn't use to. Oct 26 '15 at 2:39
  • @PeterShor One reason why I ask because the second definition I saw was "really, or actually," So I would say "There were actually 50 people at the party," but a British speaker might use quite to mean "in particular" and "actually." Oct 26 '15 at 2:43
  • 1
    I would have said that quite in these number expressions means definitely or positively: there is no question that there were fifty people (and maybe a few more). Oct 26 '15 at 3:50
  • The difference is in meaning. If I say something is "quite interesting" I probably mean that it's boring as hell, but because I am super polite (i.e. an Englishman/woman) I cannot bear to make such a direct and insensitive comment. This type of behaviour was very common until the late 1980s, nowadays British people tend to be far more direct and opinionated. Can't post this as an answer b/c this is only my opinion, and how could I prove this?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 26 '15 at 10:48

Mari-Lou A asked Dan if he could provide dated evidence of a usage of 'quite' in the form: _'..quite 50 people.' Here are a couple.

From 'The Missionary Herald at Home and Abroad Vol 51 from 1855:

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And James Fennimore Cooper's 'Wynadotte' from 1800:

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My own little theory is that 'quite' is derived from 'quit' (which the OED happily asserts without further comment), and that 'quit' in its original Latin sense was a balancing or restoring of order to accounts or arrangements, either by keeping them in balance, or in closing them. Hence in former times to say 'quit' was to refer to some ledger or accounting system. 'Not quit fifty' simply means it hasn't added up to fifty, while 'quit fifty' meant that it had added up to fifty. Since the latter assertion usually didn't need confirmation or reinforcement the use of 'quit' or 'quite' wasn't called for, but if one was addressing a doubting audience one would say, 'Yes, quit fifty acres!', meaning 'Yes, and I've checked!'.

  • Quite bravo of you, if I may say.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1 '15 at 16:48
  • It seems these are on the archaic side...does anyone still say this? Nov 1 '15 at 16:55

I (UK) use quite a to qualify magnitude in two simple but contradictory ways (so British!) depending on emphasis -

There were quite a few people there (i.e. there were more people than expected).

There were quite a few people there (i.e. you are (tactfully) suggesting that the turnout was disappointing).

I also use quite to underline the intensity of extreme adjectives -

He was quite the best pianist I have heard;

the jugglers were quite fantastic;

quite extraordinary, the way he behaved ...

The second example in the OP ...quite 50 people ... is close to my second usage, although this way of using quite (with numbers) sounds dated to my ears. Nevertheless the meaning is clear - there were easily 50 people and possibly quite a few more.

  • Would you say: "I heard quite fifteen people expressing this opinion" rather than "I heard quite a number of people...."?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1 '15 at 13:16
  • I would probably say I heard at least fifteen people... . Using quite in this way (with numbers) is easy to comprehend but it is an echo in my memory and definitely dated. Notice as well that it does not mean simply 'quite a number' but more than anticipated/expected.
    – Dan
    Nov 1 '15 at 13:27
  • If you could find any evidence to support this particular dated usage, it's an upvote from me!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1 '15 at 13:30
  • I've just tried Fowler online - but I'm not a subscribing member and there are no freebies. I'll keep my eyes and ears open !
    – Dan
    Nov 1 '15 at 13:40

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