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When does "quite" means 'rather' and when does it mean 'completely'? Here is its wordnet entry:

quite
adverb
1. to a degree (not used with a negative) (Freq. 57)
- quite tasty
- quite soon
- quite ill
- quite rich
• Syn: ↑rather
2. to the greatest extent; completely (Freq. 47)
- you're quite right
- she was quite alone
- was quite mistaken
- quite the opposite
- not quite finished
- did not quite make it
3. of an unusually noticeable or exceptional or remarkable kind (not used with a negative) (Freq. 6)
- her victory was quite something
- she's quite a girl
- quite a film
- quite a walk
- we've had quite an afternoon
• Syn: ↑quite a, ↑quite an
4. actually or truly or to an extreme
- was quite a sudden change
- it's quite the thing to do
- quite the rage
- Quite so!
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    Possible duplicate of this question on English Language & Usage. Aug 15, 2014 at 6:17
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    When context tells you so (this includes oral emphasis).
    – Pockets
    Aug 15, 2014 at 6:42
  • @LasciviousGrace The answer there, did not help me. I need some clue when it appears in written English. Aug 15, 2014 at 6:51
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    You can only get that from the meaning in context. If you write some sentences using the phrases in the definitions you listed, you should be able to understand the difference. Or you could add some sample sentences to your question which would make it easier to answer.
    – user3169
    Aug 15, 2014 at 13:24

4 Answers 4

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I doubt that there's a hard rule here, but I tend to think that "quite" dilutes or weakens a compliment or favourable adjective, but it reinforces a pejorative adjective.

Eg, "quite pretty" means something less than beautiful, and "quite funny" is less than hilarious, and "quite nice" is very mild, but "quite insane" means completely insane and "quite ugly" means really ugly. Quite peculiar means really peculiar. So, bad things are worse with "quite".

But it doesn't always work, and some "quite" expressions have worked their way into the language with their own rules, like "quite lovely" which really does mean beautiful.

Used with adjectives of potentially infinite character, such as "expensive" or "strong", quite is a moderate enforcer.

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When does "quite" means 'rather' and when does it mean 'completely'?

Intonation and body language are important for making the distinction. For example, "This salad is actually quite tasty": with the right intonation, this could mean "not too bad" or "yum yum!"

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    With a break between "quite" and "tasty" and the right facial expression it can mean "barely edible even after removing some insects".
    – gnasher729
    May 18, 2015 at 18:24
  • And the "yum,yum" version usually includes an element of surprise. Jul 18, 2015 at 2:32
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Rather can substitute for quite in the first definition with no problems.

Rather can somewhat substitute for quite in the second definition, but it will sound a bit strange, at least to my AmE ears. Quite is preferred here.

Not rather cannot be usually be gracefully substituted for not quite - to me it seems like you are trying to say rather's other definition of prefer to or want to.

Rather cannot be gracefully substituted for the third and fourth definitions.

  • quite tasty - rather tasty
  • quite soon - rather soon
  • quite ill - rather ill
  • quite rich - rather rich
  • you're quite right - you're rather right (sounds a little weird)
  • she was quite alone - she was rather alone
  • was quite mistaken - was rather mistaken
  • quite the opposite - rather the opposite
  • not quite finished - not rather finished (doesn't sound right)
  • did not quite make it - did not rather make it (doesn't sound right)
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Before I go into that, let's start with explaining some grammar terms -

Adjectives can be gradable and non-gradable.

Gradable Adjectives -

These adjectives can be measured in various degrees.

Example - Hot, cold etc

Non-gradable Adjectives -

These adjectives don't have different degrees.

Example - Horrible, terrifying etc

Usually in AmE quite means very, completely, and in BrE quite means fairly. But sometimes BrE uses quite to mean very or completely, when they use quite before non-gradable adjectives/adverbs.

Quite + a/an + noun means impressive

Example - quite a beauty.

quite + a/an + adjective + noun means a little or a lot but not completely

Example - quite a big campus.

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  • Very good, but how does one find out which adjectives are (de)gradable or non-(de)gradable? This I think is what is not obvious to OP, or to any ELL at first. They need a rule, not just examples. The only rule I can think of is circular: "gradable adjectives are ones you can apply a quantifying (scalar?) modifier to" Jan 19, 2015 at 6:01
  • @BrianHitchcock actually that is tricky. I don't think there is any rule here. You have to make yourself accounted with more words and how they work. If an adjective can take take "more" before it, it can be considered gradable. There might be exceptions but I am not sure of. In the meantime englishclub.com/grammar/adjectives-gradability.htm link is helpful. And if you have any point to add, please add that also :) thanks. Jan 19, 2015 at 6:39
  • In practice, you can (or at least, people do) apply qualifiers to any adjective. "Nearly perfect", "almost nonexistent", "slightly horrible", etc. Jun 17, 2015 at 19:19
  • When you entered "non-degradable", did you mean "non-gradable"?
    – Ast Pace
    Jul 17, 2015 at 20:07

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