Thursday, December 20, 2007


There are some words that have definitions so disparate as to render either definition essentially useless. One classic example is bimonthly, which means either "twice a month" or "once every two months." This example is particularly frustrating because context doesn't usually give much clue. It is most commonly given as an alternative to something occurring monthly, and as such either definition would make sense usually. Additionally, if it is used to mean twice a month, it is almost synonymous with one of the two definitions of biweekly!

But that's not the example I'd like to discuss today. I would like to discuss "quite." Now, in American English usage, quite is generally only used to mean "very" or "particularly" or "a great example of" (as in, "quite a pickle"). But if you are speaking with an British English speaker, the word is used just as often to mean "to some extent," or even "just barely" (the closest example in the common American lexicon to this is "not quite," meaning "barely not," or in this sense of the word, "quite not"). The first problem here is that this causes some amount of confusion for Americans listening to or reading British English*. But the second is that, really, "quite" signifies an entire range of degrees, from "barely" to "fairly" to "rather" to "completely." Inflection and context are your only friends here.

Also, it's worth noting that Americans generally seem to envision Britons as saying "quite" constantly, which isn't entirely inaccurate. I guess this wide range of uses sort of explains that.

*First example I noticed: Monty Python's Chemist Sketch, Eric Idle smells an aftershave and disappointedly remarks, "I quite like it."



Anonymous Paul said...

I believe that the word "semimonthly" is intended to make this distinction, since it always means twice a month. However, since "bimonthly" is so much easier to say, it ends up getting both definitions. Also, "once every two months" is just not a common thing to need to say.

5:52 PM  

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