Friday, November 24, 2006

Quite worthy

My aunt, who I greatly respect and whose company I very much enjoy, and I were hashing out the consequences of Geoff Pullum's latest Language Log post the other night, when somehow we got around to the question of quite.

"Unneeded", my aunt said. "At least in writing. Back when I was editing, I would remove it whenever I encountered it. People asked what we'd put in to replace it, and I would ask them what they put in to replace the cobwebs when they swept them from their corners." (I'm going from memory here.)

I had to disagree.

Brian Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage elucidates the differences in meaning between British and American uses, but declines to opine on quite's utility despite having no such qualms about other words, such as very, which he describes as
"a weasel word. This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss."
I'm not sure whether Garner actually sees a difference between quite and very, simply hasn't noticed quite, or had reached his word limit for his book. At any rate, to my mind, there is quite a role for quite. As the 405th most common word form in written academic English, clearly it's got something behind it. But maybe that's only the mediocre writers. How about the greats?

Well, Bram Stoker's Dracula has just shy of 100 instances of quite including,
"I begin to get new lights on certain things which have puzzled me. Up to now I never quite knew what Shakespeare meant when he made Hamlet say, "My tablets! Quick, my tablets! 'tis meet that I put it down," etc., For now, feeling as though my own brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end in its undoing, I turn to my diary for repose. The habit of entering accurately must help to soothe me."
Speaking of Shakespeare, the bard thought quite worthy enough to redouble in Hamlet.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers,–quite, quite down!
And it is not limited to fiction, Charles Darwin, in laying out the foundations of modern biology, wrote,
"In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration."
And of course, going through old e-mails from my aunt, I found numerous instances of quite.

So, should it stay or should it go? In my readings, I have certainly found places where quite adds little, but often it conveys something that is lacking without it: degree.

But, if I am wrong, and quite and very are to be ditched, should we not also get rid of all degree qualifiers--altogether, absolutely, completely, entirely, fully, perfectly, thoroughly, totally, utterly and wholly dispose of them? Regardless of how badly we may wish to use them? How bitterly disappointed we might be to see them go? How deeply we would miss them? Or is there a distinction I'm missing? Perhaps this was why Garner just focussed his attack on 'very'; it was bid to weasel his way off the slippery slope.

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