Quite

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Ed McBain, Long Time No See, 1977 (the 32nd of the 87th Precinct novels):

“Mrs. Harris,” Carella said, “there are some questions we’d like to ask about your son and daughter-in-law.”

“Yes, certainly,” she said. “I’ll try to assist you as best I can.”

She was adopting the kind of formal speech many blacks used with whites, especially when the whites were in a position of authority. [...]

“Mrs. Harris,” Carella said, “did your son and daughter-in-law have many friends?”

“Some, I believe.” Still the phony speech. Carella guessed she would use the word “quite” within the next several sentences. “Quite” was a sure indication that someone was using language he or she did not ordinarily use.

Of course, Mrs. Harris soon fulfills the prophecy:

“Would you know their names?”

“I did not know any of their friends personally.”

“Did they ever talk bitterly about any of them?”

“No, I never heard them say anything nasty about anyone.”

“Would you know if they’d argued recently with—”

“I believe they got along quite well with everyone.”

Ed McBain (who was actually Salvatore Lombino writing as Evan Hunter writing as Ed McBain) uses quite about a dozen times in each of the half-a-dozen 87th Precinct novels that I've checked (since the Kindle makes it easy to do that). About half are in dialogue, where he might be using the word to characterize his characters' sociolect. But some of these are in dialogue or interior monologue attributed to Detective Steve Carella, to whom the sociolinguistic observation about quite is attributed in the quoted passage, and Carella's own uses of this word don't appear to be cases of  "using language he would not ordinarily use". And many of the uses are in the author's voice rather than in dialogue or interior monologue.

So was Ed McBain subversively diagnosing his own style? or was he just blowing smoke? or was he making a valid observation that should have been stated less categorically?

Update — The next few examples of quite in the specific novel under discussion are:

“Yes, I understand. Thank you,” Carella said, and hung up. He sat with his hand on the receiver for quite some time.

“I’m enjoying it,” she said, and her eyes met his, and he knew now that she was flirting and he didn’t know quite what to do about it.

Lemarre couldn’t quite understand why, in the nightmare, Roxanne had become Lloyd’s father.

If you were in the midtown area of the city and heading for the financial area and finally the Old Port, you were still going downtown. And if you were standing in the middle of Van Buren Circle and about to head for the midtown area, you were likewise going downtown. Crosstown was quite another matter.

He smiled back. He had not yet decided quite how to play this.

"Yes, it’s quite a bargain,” Carella said.

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44 Comments »

  1. D.O. said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:13 am

    I am not quite sure what does it mean "using language he would not ordinarily use". It doesn't mean lying, does it? If I am not usually swearing, but think that in some particular situation it is appropriate, will it make me to say "quite" more? Don't think so. Maybe the claim can be reduced to the situation "adopting the kind of formal speech many blacks used with whites, especially when the whites were in a position of authority". Than it seems to be checkable with COCA or something.

    [(myl) The implication of the passage is that "quite" is a fancy sort of word that is not part of the American vernacular, a word that Americans when they're talking in an unnaturally formal way.

    Certainly quite as a one-word term of assent (A: Blah blah blah. B: Quite.) is hoity-toity. And as a modifier of verbs, it gives a similar impression ("I quite like him.") As a modifier of adjectives, though, it seems to be a bit more nuanced.]

  2. LDavidH said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 3:21 am

    Aha! I sense another UK vs. US discussion coming up. Here in the UK, I'm sure "quite" is very much part of ordinary speech, at least for a lot of people. As an ESL speaker, I'm looking forward to the blows and counter-blows!

  3. Lukys said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    I concur with LDavidH. Quite is as plain a word as "very" here in sunny Britain. I also don't see that much formalism in the rest of Mrs. Harris' speech, unless that is in comparison to the (stereo?)typical African-American vernacular speech.

  4. pj said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:14 am

    LDavidH, as a native BrE speaker I'd confirm your intuition – it's quite normal for me to use 'quite' quite a lot.
    To me the sentence 'I believe they got along quite well with everyone' is marked slightly towards the formal by 'I believe…' and perhaps to some extent by 'get along with' rather than 'get on with', but 'quite well' is fine in a formal or a casual register – though I'd be more likely, I think, to interpret it as intended to mean 'perfectly well' in the former context and 'pretty well' in the latter. To American ears, which does Mrs Harris mean here?

  5. Justin L. said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:55 am

    @pj: I think the more casual American version would be "…they got along pretty well with everyone" or "…they got along real[ly] well with everyone" or "…they got along very well with everyone".

    I studied abroad for a couple terms in the UK, and when I came back to the US, my use of "quite" was something people would point to and ask if I'd been in the UK recently ("rather" was another).

    In casual American dialogue, I can't think of a place outside of "not quite" where I'd use the word rather than "pretty" or "very". I'd be curious how many of the uses of "quite" were part of a "not quite" (or other similar negation) phrase.

  6. Dan H said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:56 am

    Another BrEng speaker who uses "quite" all the time (mostly in the "not very" sense but I couldn't swear that I never use it in the "exactly or perfectly" sense).

    I am very, very inclined to diagnose this one as "blowing smoke". If there's one thing I've learned from Language Log it's that popular culture assertions about linguistics are usually quite unsubstantiated.

  7. Pete said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 6:13 am

    When used to mean "completely, perfectly" as in I'm quite sure or When you've quite finished…, then quite could be called formal. But when used to mean "reasonably, fairly" as in It's quite nice, I think it's pretty standard in informal speech.

    The example you quote, They got along quite well, seems to me like the latter sense of quite, meaning "They got along reasonably well".

    But it could be the former I suppose, depending on the intonation: "I believe they got along perfectly well (and let's hear no more about it)"…except that the I believe seems at odds with that interpretation.

  8. John Swindle said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 6:20 am

    @pj: Since it's an American novel, "got along quite well with everyone" is closer to "got along perfectly well with everyone" than to "got along pretty well with everyone." And Americans wouldn't say "got on quite well with everyone."

    Isn't it customary to claim at this point that in the UK "rather" is stronger than "quite," while in the USA it's the other way around? Certainly the latter is true.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    @ John Swindle

    Well it depends on the context, as quite has a range of meanings, as mentioned by the commenters above. To take a small sample, in my judgement:

    1a He's rather smitten = He's somewhat smitten

    1b He's quite smitten = He's absolutely smitten

    2a She was rather nice = She was pretty nice

    2b She was quite nice = She was nice enough

    So when quite means 'absolutely', it seems to me stronger than rather, but when it means 'somewhat', it maybe tends to be weaker. (1b could also be taken in the 'somewhat' sense, i.e. as equivalent to or weaker than 1a.)

    Even as a BrE speaker, though, quite used in the 'completely' sense sounds a bit formal and posh to me. I doubt I'd use it except in a few common phrases like quite sure or, probably ironically, quite the + NP. Not quite, on the other hand, sounds normal to my ear in the 'absolute' sense…so maybe it's on its way to becoming an NPI?

  10. Nightstallion said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    Add me to the ”quite sounds normal“ faction. (L2 speaker of English, probably a mostly British-influenced variant.)

  11. James said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    I agree with the prevailing idea here that 'quite' is fancy in American, not so in Br.; also that when it doesn't mean 'entirely' it diminishes what it modifies in Br., while it intensifies what it modifies in Am. As a general rule, I believe, 'quite' will mean 'entirely' when it modifies something perfectible; so 'quite alone' does mean 'entirely alone', but 'quite tall' doesn't mean 'entirely tall' (since there's no such thing). But it's a tricky thing; Br. people sometimes say 'she's quite beautiful', meaning 'entirely', even though it is presumably not possible to complete beauty.

    All that said, my interpretation of McBain is that he thinks (correctly) that 'quite' is fancy for his characters, but is revealing, whether intentionally or not, that it is not so fancy for him. I'm almost sure I use it much more than Carella does.

  12. Michael P said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    As an American, I would say that the constructs "not quite noun/adjective" (e.g. "not quite right", "not quite what I had planned") and "quite a noun" (e.g. "quite a stir") are common rather than fancy in American English, but other uses of "quite" are much less common (and could be a marker for social class).

  13. Breffni said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    James:

    I agree with the prevailing idea here that [...] when it doesn't mean 'entirely' it diminishes what it modifies in Br.

    For me (IrE), whether (non-absolute) 'quite' downplays the quality in question depends on context. It can also communicate that the quality was contrary to expectation. The two differ prosodically:

    A: Did you enjoy the show?
    B: It was QUITE good.

    vs

    A: Was the show as bad as they say?
    B: It was quite GOOD [actually].

  14. Jim said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    Given the whole context, I'd say the idea is that the narrator intends to say that "quite" is fancy in speech from African Americans of a certain persuasion.

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    To my ears, phrases like "quite some time" and "couldn’t quite understand" have a stock, prepackaged, almost cliche feeling. I'm not making the hypothesis, but I can imagine it being made, that in 1977 a "free-floating" quite may have been elevated, even unusual in American speech, but that this quality did not necessarily pertain to stock phrases in which quite was embedded.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    I wonder if the real issue here isn't "formal," which McBain seems to be using in the sense of "careful and slightly elevated." I wouldn't call the phrase "some, I believe," for example, really formal or unusual; I'm sure that I (a white Harvard graduate) have used it – but not in casual conversation. Its appearance does say something about the tone of the exchange.

    Similarly, analysis of McBain's own usage of "quite" is tricky. Either it is (as noted) in dialogue, or it's in writing of a self-consciously literary (or at least quasi-literary) sort. Carella's use of "quite" in dialogue is, however, fair game.

  17. Laura said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    @John Swindle

    'Rather' is ambiguous. It can mean something like 'quite' (and is a bit stronger than it, I suppose), but it can also mean 'a bit too'. My local curry place describes one dish as being 'rather spicy' and I've always steered clear as that, to me, means that it's too spicy. It's a bit formal/old-fashioned/posh in that usage (or perhaps both usages) though.

  18. James said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    Breffni, that may be right, but compare your

    "It was quite GOOD [actually]"

    to

    "It was GOOD [actually]."

    I think the latter is a stronger endorsement, in Br.

  19. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    To augment Michael P's observation with some grammatical terminology: informal American English has negative-polarity quite and exclamative quite.

    The negative-polarity use has a strength that isn't relevant to affirmative contexts. "I'm not quite finished" means "it is not the case that I am completely finished" and thus implicates that I am nearly/almost finished.

    Of the McBain examples in the original post, most are in negative contexts. The other two are exclamative:
    Crosstown was quite another matter.
    It’s quite a bargain.

    And the thing with exclamatives is that they don't directly assert, but rather appeal to shared knowledge.

    So I agree with McBain that “I believe they got along quite well with everyone” is in a distancing formal register, because there is no negative context and certainly no presumption of shared knowledge that could justify an exclamative.

  20. Jens Fiederer said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    I don't think he meant "quite" when used by a white person.
    Note that the suspicious usage was as "many blacks used with whites".

    Assuming Carella was white, there is nothing suspicious about HIS usage, it wouldn't be "uppity" at all.

    I agree that "quite" has a very mild suggestion of "putting on airs", but it's the sort of thing one could do self-consciously, possibly while elevating the tip of the nose just a smidgen.

  21. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    From HMS Pinafore:
    My gallant crew, good morning.

    Sir, good morning.

    I hope you are all well?

    Quite well, and you, sir?

    I submit that this is comic dialogue, and that "quite well" sounds incongruous coming from a crew of sailors (even nineteenth-century English sailors), and that it's this same incongruity that Carella registers in Mrs. Harris's use of "quite well".

  22. Rube said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 10:50 am

    I'm thinking about my 11 year old son. Speaking to me or another adult, he might well describe something as "Quite good." I'm pretty sure he would not describe something to his friends as "quite good". ("Freakin' awesome, dude" maybe). On the other hand — he might tell them something was "quite a trip" . Like Spell Me Jeff says, that's closer to a stock phrase.

    So I guess I'm voting for "a valid observation that should have been stated less categorically" although nuanced statements about language are hard to pull off in hard-boiled police procedurals.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    Someone (Geoff Nunberg?) recently said in another thread that the boundary between informal and formal style in AmEng writing was marked by the switch from "pretty ADJ" to "rather ADJ." Someone with more time than I have today could do some quick corpus-surfing for that contrast with various common ADJ's adding "quite ADJ" (which admittedly may not be perfectly synonymous) to the mix to see both frequency and context and how those vary between AmEng and Br Eng.

    It's hard to be sure without more context, but the switch in the excerpt from "many blacks" to a generic "someone" suggests to me that the claim about "quite" is not intended to be race-specific. But it's quite plausible (as it were, although I just typed that perfectly naturally . . .) that it shouldn't be taken as a claim about 100% of native AmEng speakers as opposed to a claim about the particular range of speakers (presumably somewhat bounded by region and class) that this detective has professional occasion to deal with. I don't know the books and thus don't know what sort of speakers that range would encompass.

  24. Acilius said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    I think SpellMeJeff (above, 9:54 am) is onto something.

  25. Mark Liberman said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    J.W. Brewer: Someone (Geoff Nunberg?) recently said in another thread that the boundary between informal and formal style in AmEng writing was marked by the switch from "pretty ADJ" to "rather ADJ."

    When one of my sons was 4 years old, we took him to a local pond to feed stale bread to the ducks and geese. A friend named Charles, whose speech patterns were frankly rather affected, came along. After consuming a piece of bread, one of the geese bobbed its head and honked for more. The child commented "Oh look, he's like Charles saying 'That was rather nice'", drawing himself up to his full height and looking haughtily down his nose while performing the quoted phrase.]

  26. Paul Zukowski said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    This is quite a discussion! (I would actually talk that way – @Midwest)

    This discussion is quite good. (Only if I were trying to sound British.)

  27. Bob Moore said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    I wonder if it's a social-class issue. "Quite" seems quite normal to me, as it also appears to be for most of the over-educated readers of LL.

    I would note that there does seem to be a US/UK difference, in my experience. In the two years I lived in the UK, I formed the distinct impression that modifying an adjective with "quite" had a certain "damning with faint praise" color (colour?) to it, meaning something closer to "fairly" than to "very", as those used in American English.

  28. Dakota said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    If McBain/Lombino/Hunter is white, how would he even know if blacks use a different formal speech with blacks than with whites?

  29. LDavidH said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    @Dakota: Good point!

  30. Eric P Smith said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    @ L’Esprit de l’Escalier

    You’ve misquoted!

            My gallant crew, good morning.
            Sir, good morning.
            I hope you’re all quite well?
            Quite well, and you, sir?

    As acknowledged by several readers, quite has two separate uses: approximation (“quite good” = “reasonably good”) and reinforcement (“quite finished” = “completely finished”). In the Pinafore quote, the word quite in Corcoran’s question undoubtedly means “completely” in its pragmatic context, and so in the crew’s reply it means “completely” also, unless Gilbert is making a play on words. (Gilbert of course frequently makes plays on words, but I don’t think he’s doing so here.) If we omit the word quite from Corcoran’s question, the crew’s reply could well mean “reasonably”.

    Sorry if that sounds dogmatic. I’m not an expert. But I’m a Brit with very old-fashioned speech that is entirely in style with Gilbert's writing here.

  31. Mark F. said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    This blog has in the past made a big point of the fact that cognitive differences between males and females as groups are generally swamped by the variabilities within the groups. I think I feel the same way about the semantic ranges and levels of formality of "quite", "rather", etc.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    @Dakota: I think "with whites" means "when talking with white", not "in the presence of whites". So he could know how blacks talk with each other by eavesdropping.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    @Dakota, it's not clear to me whether the "with whites" is supposed to reflect Carella's perceptions (in which case the question is how Carella would, should, or could know, given the sort of character he's supposed to be) or is just the background narrative voice. For novels written in the third person, such unnamed narrators are by convention presumed omniscient despite the fact that novelists are empirically known not to be. (Unless of course the particular novelist has made a stylistic choice to have an unreliable narrator.)

  34. The Ridger said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    I adore the 87th Precinct novels, but there's no doubt in my mind that Carella could be a bit judgmental. He thinks he knows that blacks all talk like the punks he arrests (note it's "that many blacks adopt") and therefore if one doesn't sound like that with him, it's because they fear his white/cop privilege. It is, actually, a fairly enlightened attitude for the time… but "how does he know that" could be asked about any character's sweeping judgement about pretty much anything, couldn't it?

    Also, note that the novels are NOT all from Carella's point of view, and thus many of those "quite"s are irrelevant to Carella's personal opinion that using "quite" is unnatural. (Plus, of course, he could be suffering from the same blindness that makes people swear they never say things they actually say all the time…)

  35. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

    @Eric P Smith

    Thanks for the correction. So the crew are echoing the Captain's own phrase. That makes quite a difference.

  36. IgnatiusJ said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

    This reminds me of a past post on the use of passive constructions, and how the very people decrying its use unknowingly seemed to use it quite often.

  37. John Swindle said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    Thanks to all who have corrected my overly simplistic and mistaken view of American vs British "rather" and "quite." Sure, McBain's narrator is saying he believes some blacks talk formally in the presence of whites. I don't see "I believe they got along quite well with everyone" as terribly formal or unusual anyway. For whatever it's worth (probably not much), I have a scale something like this:

    Stronger

    "got along perfectly" (hyperbole)
    "got along perfectly well" (old-fashioned)
    "got along quite well" or (less formal) "got along just fine"
    "got along rather well" (careful) or (informal) "got along pretty well"
    Weaker

  38. Dan Hemmens said,

    January 21, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    For novels written in the third person, such unnamed narrators are by convention presumed omniscient despite the fact that novelists are empirically known not to be.

    I think this is a common misconception (not that novelists aren't omniscient, that narrators by convention are). Third-person limited-viewpoint is just as common as third-person omniscient, arguably more so.

  39. Ken Brown said,

    January 21, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    Two things. From a BrE perspective, if a man meets a woman and says she is "rather nice", he fancies her. if he says she is "quite nice", he doesn't.

    Secondly, there is a wording I associate with Americans that I'd never use myself that goes something like "it was quite the {something}". Not part of my usage.

  40. Terry Hunt said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 11:47 am

    "So was Ed McBain subversively diagnosing his own style? or was he just blowing smoke? or was he making a valid observation that should have been stated less categorically?"

    I think these questions are in part predicated (perhaps deliberately :-) ) on some incorrect assumptions.

    The first is that any attitudes and beliefs McBain, as narrator, attributes to Steve Carella are necessarily McBain's own. To be sure Carella is the most sympathetic and central character of the series, and stands somewhat in contrast to Ollie Weeks, for example, but McBain is far too skilled a writer to make any character a mere sock puppet for himself.

    Carella is a tough and experienced police detective in the (lightly disguised) New York of the 1950's and later, and McBain is portraying him thus. Being a well-portrayed human being, he is not perfect and may anyway be oblivious of some of his own usages, as The Ridger observed above. That aside, he's applying a rule of thumb derived from his (Carella's) own long professional experience, not making a definitive scientific pronouncement, so I feel that suggestions that McBain is being excessively catagorical are inappropriate.

    It might also be noted that Carella is likely to be more conscious of speech patterns that most others, because his wife Teddy is a deaf-mute, so he has to think more about communicating than the average.

    In the passage quoted, the propositions in question are partly expressed by the narrative voice, but it is, I think, part of McBain's technique that when such narration takes place in a scene where a particular character's POV is predominant, it often reflects that character's mindset rather than being dispassionately auctorial. I interpret some of Mr Liberman's post to indicates that he's aware of this.

    The second assumption is that an observation (whether by the character of Carella or by McBain as author) specifically about spoken language is equally applicable to written non-dialogue narration. The latter is (as we surely all know) generally more formal and otherwise different from speech*, so McBain's can validly use "quite" in his auctorial narrative writing despite his observations about its general non-use in speech by the citizens of 1970's New York, without being knowingly or unknowingly "subversive" of himself. (*My own writing style in this comment is a good and conscious, but not deliberately affected, example. Acquaintances will, I suspect, readily affirm that my own spoken style is also often more formal than the average.)

    That said, McBain occasionally does poke quiet fun at himself elsewhere in his novels – on one occasion, if I recall correctly, he deprecates a minor character for lack of pride in his ethnic heritage, having legally changed his name from Lombino to Hunter – so this contradiction over "quite" could be a similar jest, though I think it's too subtle for that.

    There remains the question of whether Carella's observation is valid, or at least was valid for the context (of 1950s–70s New York). That requires direct knowledge (or conceivably published research) entirely unavailable to me, but my understanding of McBain (of whom I'm a great fan, in case you hadn't guessed) is that his work was thoroughly researched and grounded in what was, after all, his native city; that he was an acute observer of his subject matter; and that he would have been unlikely to make up and insert such observations if he didn't have good reason at least to think that an experienced police detective like Carella (who himself has black friends and colleagues) would believe them.

  41. Terry Hunt said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    Just to say that the footnote to my 7th (I do go on, don't I?) paragraph above was intended to be rendered small, and was so displayed in the preview. Sorry for the lessened clarity.

  42. Dan T. said,

    January 23, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    To Americans, a lot of British stuff comes off as "pretentious", including British spellings; real estate developers tend to pomposity in naming developments things like "Harbour Centre".

    Regarding one of the literary quotes, the meanings of "uptown", "downtown", and "crosstown" vary by city. In Manhattan, they refer respectively to the north, south, and east/west directions (actually at a slight angle to true north/south/east/west due to the layout of the grid more-or-less parallel to the rivers). In many other cities, "downtown" refers to the central business district, so what compass direction one goes to head there varies by what part of town you're in to start with, which might be in any direction from downtown. "Uptown" is less-used, but when it is it usually refers to some neighborhood that's just outside the downtown district. "Crosstown" sometimes is used in names of bus lines that run perpendicularly to the more common lines that radiate from the downtown area.

  43. Ted said,

    January 24, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    @pj:

    Like John Swindle, I (AmE) would find get on with in place of get along with strange.

    I would use it to mean "proceed" (as in "quit stalling and get on with it already") and, in what is probably a derivative sense, to mean "age" (as in "he hasn't retired yet? He must really be getting on" – although "must be getting on" sounds rather like a stock phrase). But if I heard it used to mean "get along with," I would assume that the speaker was being deliberately unidiomatic.

  44. Terry Hunt said,

    January 25, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    @ Ted

    If "get on with" were so used by an American English speaker, you might well be correct. In the UK, all three of those usages are equally common, to the extent that pj may not have realised that the third is not also current in AmE, and to BrE ears, "get along with" seems distinctly AmE, although of course we're familiar with it from US cultural imports.

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