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What is the difference between quite and pretty in the following context:

The differences between these concepts are quite complicated.

and

The differences between these concepts are pretty complicated.

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"Quite" basically means "considerably more than you might expect". –  Mehrdad Jul 9 at 9:15
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seems like a million people disagree here. To me, these mean the same in terms of intensity, but the first is more formal than you would use in normal conversation and the second is a hair informal. –  hunter Jul 9 at 11:19

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Pretty complicated is approximately the same as fairly complicated: there is a significant degree of complication. It is complicated enough that it will require much effort for an ordinary person to understand it.

  • Pretty, in this sense, is used mostly in conversation, very little in formal discourse.

Quite complicated is more complicated than that: very complicated. It is so complicated that an ordinary person may not be able to understand it entirely.

  • Quite is used mostly in formal discourse, much less in ordinary conversation.
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That is, quite complicated is more complicated than pretty complicated. –  Dmitry Fucintv Jul 8 at 6:53
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@DmitryFucintv Pretty much so. In fact, quite so. –  StoneyB Jul 8 at 7:09
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Do note there is regional variation with 'quite'. In the UK it now means the same as 'pretty' in this context - i.e. 'somewhat/moderately/not very'. The current US meaning is an antiquated meaning here. –  jam Jul 8 at 9:09
    
@jam: and furthermore inflection matters. I'm British, and if I say "it's quite complicated" with the word "quite" stressed and short, I mean "very, too much". Or more clearly "yes, it is indeed quite complicated". If I elongate the word "quite" with an up-and-down intonation I mean "somewhat, enough to be significant", and you expect the next word to be "but" :-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 9 at 9:11
    
@Steve True. And I still regularly see 'quite' as a single-word response to another's statement, where it means 'indeed/exactly', so the 'old' usage does linger in some forms. –  jam Jul 9 at 9:24

The usage of the word "quite" in modern English is a paradox. It can mean two opposite things:

The original meaning is still used sometimes:

"He is quite dead." (You cannot be slightly dead, so "quite" in this context means, "absolutely.")

The modern meaning can mean anything from "moderately" through to "surprisingly."

"They said I'd hate Javanese cooking but I found it quite tasty."

In this second context, the word, "quite tasty" could be substituted by the word "pretty tasty" and it would mean the same thing.

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Firstly, when you search the word 'quite' on OALD, it says pretty is a synonym.

quite (synonyms - fairly, pretty) - to some degree

But then, if you search for pretty, besides its general meaning, it also means very [I actually thought it this way when I saw the sentence first!]

pretty - very

So...

The differences between these concepts are quite complicated = to some degree complicated.

The differences between these concepts are pretty complicated = to some degree complected OR very complected

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"quite" in this context would seem (to me at least) to be more intense in meaning than "to some degree". I am not sure there is a definitive answer, though. –  Tim Seguine Jul 8 at 11:25
    
@TimSeguine Interestingly, if you just respond to a sentence spoken -What do you think of the differences between these concepts? ~ Yeah, pretty complicated. To most (including me), it'd mean very. If spoken independently, Pretty tough/difficult/easy... will all mean very –  Maulik V Jul 8 at 11:43
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I'd say it depends on context. Depending on emphasis and tone, "pretty" could mean something more along the lines of "somewhat" or "a little bit". You aren't wrong though. I think you make the uncertainty clear enough in your answer. –  Tim Seguine Jul 8 at 11:58
    
The lack of difference may be related to the fact that statements 'It's a bit complicated...' and 'It's very,very complicated...' generally refer to the exact same situations and same level of complexity. In theory, there is a difference, but in practice that difference may say something about the person saying it but not about the degree of complexity. –  Peteris Jul 8 at 13:55
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@Steve Jessop ... or in the event it is definitely a minor problem you could say "it's quite/pretty minor" :) –  Marv Mills Jul 9 at 12:32

Quite means, variably:

  • Exactly or completely, as in "quite so" (meaning "exactly right")
  • Somewhat or fairly, as in "quite big" (something cannot be "completely big", so this must mean "fairly large")

Pretty means the same as that second sense of quite (In this context! Obviously it also means cute/beautiful etc.), so that one can say "pretty big" but not "pretty so".

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to use BOTH of these words ironically or sarcastically, for example:

  • Describing something extremely large as "pretty big" or "quite big" (the second sense of quite)
  • I'm quite sure there must be a pretty good example of the first sense of quite, but I can't think of one :(

To answer the question, there is no real difference between the two words in the context of the question - quite doesn't necessarily indicate the degree to which something is [adjective], any more than pretty does.

It's also worth noting that the second sense of quite is more common as a colloquialism in British English than pretty, whereas the first sense you would be more likely to see in polite/formal written language.

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In many cases, it would be equally or more correct to omit either word and still retain the meaning.

"It is broken" instead of "It is pretty broken"

"It is sore" instead of "It is quite sore" etc etc

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In the fist sentence Quite refers to Completely. While in the second sentence Pretty refers to a certain extent.

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It is not as straightforward as that. Rarely quite means 'completely'. Usually quite means 'somewhat'. –  JamesRyan Jul 8 at 10:04
    
@JamesRyan I agree with you but here it refers completely –  rebel Jul 8 at 14:11
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No, with these phrases it could be either meaning, you need more context to tell. In UK English the sample phrase would most commonly not mean completely. –  JamesRyan Jul 8 at 14:23

one would use pretty in this context so that the speaker liked to talk about the mentioned concepts

i would use quite in this context maybe to hint that the speaker himself would rather not talk about the differences between the concepts in full detail -- which is absolutely understandable, as they apparently a r e "quite complicated".. :-)

hope you accomplish to get message across . good luck

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