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I came across a following sentence:

"This is a rather old house".

I could not visualise what "rather" is doing to the entire sentence. Is it just as equivalent as "This is an old house" or does rather adds different meaning to the entire sentence?

Is it used as adverb, here rather is not a comparison I think. Rather, is it added to say "too old" or "not too old"?

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According to Collins Dictionary, we use rather to indicate that something is true to a fairly great extent, especially when we are talking about something unpleasant or undesirable. Here are some examples:

  1. I'm afraid it's rather a long story.
  2. He's rather an unpleasant man.
  3. That's rather a difficult book - here's an easier one for you.
  4. It is a rather grey, colourless city, with few interesting sights or historical monuments.

Note that with a/an we usually use rather a/an + adjective + noun, but we can also use a rather + adjective + noun (like in your sentence This is a rather old house).

So, This is a rather old house means This house is quite old or This house is pretty old. If you say This is a rather old house, you sound less straightforward than if you say This is an old house.

  • But I think we've arrived at the same place. I think "quite old" is likely to be just as confusing as "rather old". – J.R. Feb 14 '18 at 1:41
  • As @J.R. notes, quite is used rather differently in British and American English; in the former it is usually a moderator (it's quite hot today meaning it's fairly hot today) and in the latter more often an intensifier (it's quite hot today meaning it's really hot today). – choster Feb 14 '18 at 3:12
  • I would use quite old to mean roughly the same as very old, personally (I'm American). I don't remember using quite differently (as a moderator) when I was a teenager in England 40 years ago, but I may have. The British use the expression "Quite so," for example, in the sense in the sense that Americans use "Absolutely," to mean I completely agree. – BobRodes Feb 14 '18 at 3:42
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Rather, quite, pretty, jolly and what are all adjectives of indiection that are important to master if you want to sound proper. In British English, politeness is expressed by being as indirect as possible. At it's extreme, all other speach is dropped leaving just these adjectives. E.g. the singular response:

"Quite."

Encompasses the full character of the speaker and his/her opinions on the matter. If greater force is intended, then this can be detected by a slight raising of an eyebrow in the speaker's shadow.

More seriously these words are hard to understand if you don't know the speaker, social environment or wider context of the statement. It can either be an intensifier or a diminuitive. If I want to express an opinion but worry that it might offend (and talking about age is a sure one), I would use "quite", "rather" or "somewhat" to take the edge off it. If I wanted to give praise, but was of the type to rarely do so, I would use "quite" or "rather" and those that knew me would understand that greater force is intended than if I'd left it off. Inflection can also help a great deal.

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Rather is often used -- as it is in your sentence -- to diminish, qualify or moderate the strength of a statement. So, a rather old house is not as old as an old house, while a very old house is older than an old house.

As Enguroo points out, people often use rather in this sense to equivocate a bit (especially the British). A rather interesting book is a book that one wants to avoid saying is simply interesting, so as to avoid stating a position of complete disagreement with someone who finds the book boring. Consider these two conversations, between persons A and B:

A. I found that book interesting.
B. I found it boring, actually.

In this case, A can only agree to disagree, or reverse his position. Now:

A. I found that book rather interesting.
B. I found it boring, actually.
A. Well, of course it has its boring moments.

Here, the fact that A found the book only rather interesting means that he didn't find it entirely interesting. He has room to suggest that he shares some part of B's boredom.

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