Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Hodges on Blair on "Quite a Few'

Jeff Hodges writes:

In response to your view that "quite a few" is an idiom whose meaning cannot be derived by analysis to [BV: synthesis of?]its parts, Robert Blair wrote:

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The construct "quite a few" makes sense when one considers the use of "quite" as a magnifier. Eg, "How tired are you?". "Quite tired". Meaning "more than a little tired" or "more tired than normal". Eg, "Were there a few in the room ?". "No, there were quite a few". Meaning "more than a few".
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At first, I thought that Blair was simply wrong, and that for him to be correct, "quite a few" [BV: 'quite'?]would have to 'magnify' "a few" into the meaning of "even fewer." But upon reflection, I think that he's correct. If we note the distinction between "a few" and "few," we can see how his suggestion works. Both expressions could refer to the same number of, say, persons in a room, e.g., three. But "few," as in "There were few persons there," suggests that there were fewer than one might have expected, whereas "a few," as in "There were a few persons there," suggests that there were more than one might have expected.

BV: Linguistic intuitions are rather slippery, aren't they? I think I see what you mean with respect to 'There were few persons there.' But I don't get your second point.

So, to add "quite" to "a few" 'magnifies' this to mean that there were even more than one might have expected.

BV: I don't see it.

Consequently, I think that Blair is correct.

By the way, I don't think that your analogy to "person" could work even if you were right in your argument about "quite a few." The word "person" is not a compound of "per" and "son," which it would need to be in order for the analogy to "quite a few" to work. The expression "quite a few" really is a compound of "quite" and "a few." Your original point was that the meaning of "quite a few" cannot be derived from its parts, "quite" and "few," but you weren't disputing that these are its parts.

BV: My analogy was as follows. Just as one cannot arrive at the meaning of 'person' by combining the meaning of 'per' with the meaning of 'son,' so too, one cannot arrive at the meaning of 'quite a few' by combining the meaning of 'quite' with the meaning of 'a few.' You reject the analogy on the ground that 'person' is not a compound of 'per' and 'son.' Why isn't it? Of course, 'person' is not a phrase, but a word. But words can themselves be analyzed into parts such as morphemes. And obviously, 'person' is not a compound the meaning of which is computable from the meanings of 'per' and 'son'; but it is still a compound in that the expression (which is not to be confused with its meaning)can be constructed by combining 'per' and 'son.'

But let's consider another example. Compare 'unacceptable' with 'inflammable.' The meaning of 'unacceptable' is computable from its constituent morphemes, 'un,' 'accept' and 'able.' But not so with 'inflammable' and 'invaluable' which mean flammable and (extremely) valuable, respectively. Thus a learner of English has to learn 'invaluable' as a semantic unit analogously as he must learn 'quite a few' as a semantic unit. Try this stuff out on your wife and see what happens.