Tuesday, August 10, 2004

On 'Quite a Few'

Robert Blair writes:

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".

In earlier uses (and still in some regions) of modern English the word "quite" is often used on its own. Eg, "By Jove Jeeves - this cooking pot is hot what ?" "Quite sir. I should venture to add that it may become rather hotter unless we can induce the aborigines to desist from adding fuel to the fire".

BV replies: 'Quite' has two main uses in English. It can mean WHOLLY, COMPLETELY, POSITIVELY as in, 'We are not quite there yet' and 'I am quite sure.' It can also mean RATHER, VERY, as in 'It is quite hot in here.' So I agree with you about 'quite tired.' But I don't see how 'quite' can intensify or magnify ' a few.'

Note that my point was not that 'quite a few' lacks meaning, but that its meaning is not compounded from the meanings of 'quite and 'a few.' If a learner of English did not know the meaning of 'quite a few,' he would not be able to work it out by combining the meanings of 'quite' and 'a few' in the way that he would be able to work out the meaning of 'quite hot' by combining the meanings of 'quite' and 'hot.'

It's a bit like the difference between 'whoreson' and 'person.' The former is a compound of 'whore' and 'son': a whoreson is a son of whore, or a bastard, and like 'bastard,' can be used as a generalized term of abuse. But a person is not a son of a per.