What does the following sentence mean?

He is quite a guy.

In which situation would quite a be used?

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    Quite a is a determiner idiom phrase that means the same thing as very, except that very can only modify adjective and adverb phrases, while quite a can modify noun phrases. Including the idiom quite a lot, which also means very much, and can modify verb phrases. – John Lawler Aug 3 '14 at 14:45
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    @JohnLawler Now you’ve sent me haring off to try to decide what difference they might be between quite the and quite a. Does the article’s definiteness matter? – tchrist Aug 3 '14 at 14:51
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    He's quite a guy would mean *He's very a guy (if we could say that). Whatever guyhood means to the speaker, he encapsulates it. This varies widely, of course, depending on the speaker and the addressee. – John Lawler Aug 3 '14 at 15:06
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    Oh, and @tchrist: I grew up with quite a; quite the strikes me as affected and hyperbolic. – John Lawler Aug 3 '14 at 15:08
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    @tchrist: To me, "He's quite a comedian" would be more likely in contexts where "he" is commonly acknowledged to be a comedian (as a "permanent" attribute, not necessarily having just done or said anything funny). But I'm more likely to use "He's quite the comedian" in contexts where he's just done/said something justifying the label at that particular time (very likely where in other contexts I wouldn't consider "acting the funny guy" to be something he typically does). So for me there can be a bit of a difference. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 3 '14 at 15:31

According to OOD:

quite a ... (also often IRONIC quite the ...)

Used to indicate that the specified person or thing is perceived as particularly notable, remarkable, or impressive. ⇒ "quite a party, isn’t it?"

According to CED:

quite a ...

(not used with a negative) of an exceptional, considerable, or noticeable kind ⇒ quite a girl, quite a long walk

According to LEDO:

quite a something/quite some something

British English used before a noun to emphasize that something is very good, large, interesting ⇒ The engines make quite a noise.

But we all know that the word quite can also function as an adverb with the definition:

to the utmost or most absolute extent or degree ⇒ this is quite a different problem.


to a certain or fairly significant extent or degree; fairly ⇒ he’s quite an attractive man.

and therefore "quite a ..." can also be interpreted as:

a ... to the greatest extent


a ... to some extent.

It all depends on the context.


In which situation would quite a be used?

It would be used when you would look at the object in question, consider examples relating to someone or something exemplifying the attributes of that object, and consider that the person or thing exceedingly represents that object.

That Ferrari is quite a car! (A Ferrari isn't just a car, it is a car, plus plus plus).

That's the "straight" definition.

However, it's also used in some contexts to present the comparison where it wouldn't make sense, but applied in a way that might be sarcastic:

That Charlie Brown Christmas tree is quite a tree, isn't it?

Here, the reversal is that the tree isn't much more than essentially a branch, so the usage is to slightly demean the appearance without outright saying, "That's an ugly tree!"

In general, it's probably not quite a term to be used unless you really want to call attention to the object as extremely indicative (or much better/worse) than the average of its type.


Answer: “quite a” means very.

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    Applying this stated equivalence directly to the quoted question renders "a very guy". Applying it directly to "that was quite a meal!" renders "that was a very meal!". Can you elaborate a bit? – Dan Bron Aug 3 '14 at 15:11
  • "a very guy" guy or "a very meal" meal is clear to me. (note carefully that it could indeed mean "bad or good" in each case. you can very much say "that was quite the meal" if it was just too much, too filling, etc (for example).) – Joe Blow Aug 3 '14 at 15:14
  • Whoever voted this down is silly. it's a simple question - and it should have a simple answer. Note too that I am using the exact minimum number of characters that can be used in an answer -- shocked that wasn't noticed. – Joe Blow Aug 3 '14 at 15:15
  • Note that just because a word/phrase exactly means some other word - it's completely unsurprising that you are not able to simply substitute one for another, in the same sentence structure. Note too that you can simply say "that was a meal" (often "now that was a meal") to mean pretty much exactly the same thing (again, good or bad). In these phrases the interesting part is how you are using guy, or meal the "quite the" is nothing. You're using "guy" or "meal" to mean "the epitome of Guyness" "epitome of mealness" (again - for better or worse). – Joe Blow Aug 3 '14 at 15:20
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    John Lawler has proved that you can't use very in all the situations that you can use "quite a" nor vice versa. This answer is insufficient. – Matt Ellen Aug 3 '14 at 15:25

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