Is there any logic to this or just decision? I would use the following combinations:

  • quite amazing
  • rather large
  • pretty good

I would not use the following combinations:

  • pretty amazing
  • quite large
  • rather good

There're also the words pretty and fairly and of course we say "pretty good" instead of quite good/rather good. Is there any grammar rule that states which word to select to give strength to an adjective without depending on the adjective for no appearant reason?


6 Answers 6


I think "quite amazing" is an oxymoron; something can't be "mildly greatly surprising."

There is another issue here: Quite can mean both totally and mildly. So in your example "quite amazing" would be better expressed as "mildly surprising" or awesome.

For example:

My aunt is quite mad. [Is she a little bit eccentric or totally insane?]

Either way in the case of "quite amazing" both meanings: "totally greatly surprising" and "mildly greatly surprising" make no sense.

  • You're right... Still the term "quite amazing" is established or do you disagree? Aug 27, 2011 at 4:13
  • 'Quite' is in its intensifier mode in 'quite amazing'. There are those who would slap on 'extreme adjective + grading: wrong' but they're wrong; it's a pragmatic intensifier, more subtle than bolded capitalisation and three exclamation marks. // Also, the default meaning of 'oxymoron' nowadays is 'a succinctly stated paradox' where 'paradox' means 'something that while appearing to be a contradiction in terms on deeper analysis is found not to be'. Dec 18, 2020 at 12:43

Ok, I will take a crack at this:

  • quite is good for expressing mild suprise at the extent/size: "I was quite pleased by the reception I received there."

  • rather is a more posh version of quite.

  • pretty, on the other hand, is to express faint enthusiasm: "I had a pretty good time, I might go there again sometime."

  • fairly is even a bit less enthusiastic than pretty.

Each can be used, more or less ironically, for the opposite effect, though.

  • 2
    Pretty doesn't have to be disparaging, and AFAIK, usually isn't. It just connotes slight lack of enthusiasm, or, depending on the tone of voice, and context, it could mean very (e.g. the wind blew pretty hard today).
    – Daniel
    Aug 25, 2011 at 20:24
  • Thanks, @DRⱮ65 Δ, "disparaging" is too strong...will edit that. However, its primary meaning as an adverb (this is from M-W) is "moderately". So, with my "ironically for opposite effect" disclaimer/squish clause, I'll stand by that.
    – JeffSahol
    Aug 25, 2011 at 20:53
  • 1
    I wouldn't say the wind is blowing pretty hard is ironic. And that usage seems common enough; worth mentioning.
    – Daniel
    Aug 25, 2011 at 21:28
  • 1
    Just because London-based Sloanies were stereotyped as being inclined to exclaim "Rather!" where us peasants would say "Yes, please!" hardly justifies claiming that rather is a "posh" version of "quite". The upper classes are also stereotyped as saying "Quite so" where the rest of us say "Yes indeed". Aug 26, 2011 at 15:47
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers, I can only plead Americanism to that point. In the USA (or maybe this is even regional?) this usage of "rather" is not as common and really does carry a higher tone, at least, than alternatives such as "quite".
    – JeffSahol
    Aug 26, 2011 at 15:53

Strunk & White's rather delicious little subtlety:

Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are all pretty sure to violate it now and then

  • Subtlety? About as subtle as a kick in the teeth! One would hardly need to set scanners to maximum to notice that they somewhat disapprove of such words - unless it's to cast aspersions on the rather small manhoods of those who use them in non-size-related contexts. Aug 26, 2011 at 1:41
  • 2
    @fumbleFingers. I will spell it out for you: "we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are all pretty sure to violate it now and then." Nov 16, 2016 at 13:52
  • Better late than never! Until you did spell it out for me, I never actually noticed the tongue-in-cheek flaunting of their own recommendation! But I've still got no time for style guides, and the fact that there might be the odd chuckle buried in there somewhere isn't going to tempt me to read Strunk & White from cover to cover. Nov 16, 2016 at 17:30

Some of them have differences of strengths, for instance, if something were described as "pretty large" or "fairly large" I would interpret as less large than something described as "quite large" or "rather large".

"Rather" sometimes has a slight connotation of unexpected, so if something was somewhat larger than expected I would prefer to use "rather large" than the others.

These preferences may vary from region to region and even person to person though.


One could grow weary of pointing out that English doesn't actually have many "rules", and that it would be better in most cases to call potential candidates for that term "strong tendencies", since they're often not universally applicable.

OP himself may be exceptionally consistent in using rather rather than quite large, but that's really just his preference. Though if this NGram means anything, it suggests average usage is tipping the other way. He's more in the mainstream with quite amazing, but this one backs up my own gut feeling that pretty soon pretty amazing will rule that particular roost.

In certain contexts, these kind of qualifiers can all have their own special nuances, but it would be a mistake to infer any consistent rule regarding which to use when. Nor is there any consistent hierarchy of "intensity" for rather, quite, pretty, very, etc. Many Brits, for example, would say that in some contexts, somewhat is far more intense than any of those. Any many (younger?) people use totally in ways that imply it's far less intense.

  • The NGrams were very interesting. I wonder why it's changing. Sep 1, 2011 at 13:33
  • @Niklas R: Probably lots of reasons - plus pure happenstance, of course. I think young people rarely use pretty to mean attractive nowadays, so maybe that one is more "freed up" for use as an intensifier. Plus I don't hear younger people say astonishing much, so this trend accords with my own gut feeling of the way things are moving. Sep 1, 2011 at 15:31
  • Well @FumbleFingrs do you mean that they are not gradable and are opinion-based words? I think they are and depending on one's tone and regional differences they can carry various strength. E.g. I believe that most Americans use "pretty" instead of both "quite" and "pretty". Also, "quite" means "completely" with some absolute adjectives and verbs in both AE/BE AFAIC; but I need an American acknowledgment on my take.
    – A-friend
    Oct 8, 2019 at 8:25

As quoted in Harpers Bazaar, Diana described Charles as "pretty amazing".

This may not have been the Queen's English, but it was the Wife of the Heir Apparent's English, which is pretty authoritative.

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