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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.

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  • 1
    So what is your question?
    – Ricky
    Oct 26, 2015 at 2:20
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    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, 2015 at 3:50
  • 2
    I strongly doubt any BrEng speaker would say the phrase "There were quite 50 people at the party" I can't even make out what you are saying there. It should be "almost". I'd change that sample phrase, if I were you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:01
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    In British English (at least in the books I read) "quite" is often used as a one word response, signifying agreement, often with a disparaging comment. First lady about third lady: "Humph. Mutton dressed as lamb." Second lady: "Quite."
    – ab2
    Oct 26, 2015 at 21:26
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    @ab2: Quite. But as Mari-Lou says, Brits alive today would be very unlikely to say anything like There were quite 50 people at the house. That would be more typical of upper middle class Victorian speakers. But we do still use He had quite a few, He knows quite a lot, He was quite annoyed,... Jul 6, 2023 at 18:02

3 Answers 3

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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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http://preview.tinyurl.com/ojz24nf

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

enter image description here

http://preview.tinyurl.com/or7wonw

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!'.

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  • Quite bravo of you, if I may say.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1, 2015 at 16:48
  • It seems these are on the archaic side...does anyone still say this? Nov 1, 2015 at 16:55
  • Here, 'quite' means 'fully'; 'quite 50' probably equates to 50-55. Jul 6, 2023 at 18:32
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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.

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  • 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, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 at 13:40
  • As an American, the only example of yours that seems unusual to my ear is "He was quite the best pianist I have heard."
    – David
    Jul 6, 2023 at 17:18
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As an American, I have never heard a construction like, "There were quite 50 people." However, we would use its negation, to say something like, "There were not quite 50 people," if there were around, say, 45-49 people. That said, it would probably still be more common to say, "There were almost 50 people." However the latter carries a connotation that the number of people may be more than were expected. The "not quite" phrasing does not carry a similar connotation.

For an AmE parallel to your positive usage, we would instead say something like, "There were barely 50 people," or "There were just barely 50 people." Assuming that the speaker is not misestimating, I would expect this to be around 50-55, and it is emphasizing how many fewer people were there than were expected (say 100+).

EDIT: I agree with a commenter who gave another positive parallel of, "There were actually 50 people." That usage could be used to emphasize either more OR fewer than expected, depending on the context.

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