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1 'Short' is [quite] the opposite of 'tall'.

2 'Short' is [quite] the contrary of 'tall'.

3 'Short' means [quite] the opposite of 'tall'.

4 'Short' means [quite] the contrary of 'tall'.

Which of the above senteces sounds more natural? And, how does 'quite' work there?

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  • 3
    I wouldn't use quite in any of those sentences, though someone else might. (Is that a British usage? I don't know.) Sentences 1 and 3 sound okay to me; sentences 2 and 4 sound odd to me.
    – user230
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 20:52
  • @snailplane The word quite itself does seem to sound more commonly British to me, yes (though I still use it quite often!). The problem with quite in this case, though, is that it implies varying degrees of oppositeness, which can only be true or false. (I explained further in my answer :)).
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 22:03

4 Answers 4

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"Short is the opposite of tall" would be the most natural for me in Canada of those listed. Quite is useful if you wanted to emphasize that this difference is the highlight of the sentence. "Short is quite the opposite of tall" would sound a bit odd, but it could be correct if the intention is for people to focus on the word opposite in the sentence.

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In this case "quite" is used as an emphasiser, for example:

Jane is quite tall

Jane is pretty tall

In both of these cases the sentences mean the same thing, i.e. that Jane is tall, with an extra emphasis placed on Jane's tallness.

It's use in this form is uncommon outside of British English, although even there its use is becoming increasingly rare.

Putting this together with your sentence, we can see that "quite the opposite" is merely an emphasis of "the opposite", hence the following two sentences are effectively equivalent:

"short" is the opposite of "tall".

"short" is quite the opposite of "tall".

Consequently in your sentences, sentence 1 and 3 are both perfectly fine either with, or without the word "quite".

Sentence 2 and 4 are not quite right. "Opposite" tends to be used comparatively, for example:

"left" is the opposite of "right"

Whereas "contrary" reverses the meaning of a sentence and restates it:

Is Jane still short?

No! Quite the contrary! (Now she is tall.)

Notice here that "contrary" can be combined with "quite" to give the sentence additional weight and emphasis. "Quite the contrary" is an idiomatic expression that means "No! Exactly the opposite!"

Therefore in answer to your question, "quite" is an emphasiser, and sentence 1 and 3 are correct. Sentence 2 and 4 are not correct because "contrary" cannot be used comparatively.

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Neither #2 nor #4 sounds natural to me. They appear to misuse contrary.

For the other two sentences, “natural” depends in part on register (ie, on context that dictates what style of a language to use). In most contexts, leave out quite for a more-natural sound. In formal, literary, academic, or otherwise hifalutin contexts, put it in if more emphasis is desired. In the context of my own speech, I'd say something like “Short has some senses opposite to those of tall”, instead of baldly asserting one is the opposite of the other.

Regarding is vs means, is sounds slightly more natural to me, but either can be used indifferently in most contexts.

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Quite is an intensifier. It increases the emphasis put upon the object it refers to. For example:

The pile of letters on his desk is quite large.

The use of quite here emphasizes the largeness of the pile of letters. This makes sense, because an object can be varying degrees of large (very, extremely, etc. could also be used in place of quite here, depending on what you want to say).

Now, to go over the sentences you posted:

1 'Short' is [quite] the opposite of 'tall'.

Quite does not make sense in this example, because something cannot be varying degrees of opposite to something else. A is either opposite to B, or not opposite to B. So intensifiers don't really make sense. (You wouldn't say 'Short' is [extremely] the opposite of 'tall', for example.) So no, you should not use quite here.

As for your next example:

2 'Short' is [quite] the contrary of 'tall'.

The problem here is that contrary is not being used correctly. There are different sentence formations when using opposite and contrary. For example, these examples all sound natural:

Short is the opposite of tall.

Short is contrary to tall.

The difference in construction is that we generally say that A is the opposite of B, and that A is contrary to B.

And for your final examples:

3 'Short' means [quite] the opposite of 'tall'.

4 'Short' means [quite] the contrary of 'tall'.

You have the same problems regarding the use of quite and contrary here, but I'd also like to point out that using means instead of is sounds quite odd. There seems to be an implied end to the sentence, ie: "Short means the opposite of [what tall does]", but the sentence sounds awkward and incomplete. In theory it seems to be a grammatically correct sentence, but it sounds strange so I would complete the sentence and write it as:

'Short' means the opposite of what 'tall' does.

Or if you choose contrary:

The meaning of 'short' is contrary to the meaning of 'tall'.

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  • "Quite the opposite" is a fairly standard idiom, meaning "No! Exactly the opposite!" (google.com/…). Consequently it would be entirely valid for a conversation of the form to be "Does 'short' mean the same as 'tall'?" "No, silly. 'Short' means quite the opposite of 'tall'!"
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 22:50

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