Dead & quite: How two intensifiers behave on either side of the pond

First of all, what exactly is an “intensifier,” in grammatical terms? It’s an adverb or adverbial phrase that gives the adjective it precedes extra force or emphasis. (Intensifiers are actually a particular type of what we call a “sub-modifier”: an adverb used in front of an adjective — or another adverb — to modify its meaning.) British or American, we use standard intensifiers all the time: absolutelycompletely, extremely, highly, rather, really, so, too, totally, utterly, very. And most of these “very variations” are used the same way on both sides of the Atlantic. But not all: there are in fact a couple of exceptions, one of which is quite ambiguous …

The first one is dead. Whether you’re American or British, dead is easily understood as an intensifier in most contexts. First, there’s dead as in “absolutely”, “completely”. “You’re dead right.” Then there’s dead as in “exactly” (“They arrived dead on time”) or as in “straight” or “directly” (“The car drove dead ahead”). However, there’s another use of dead as an intensifier that only happens on one side of the pond: only in informal British-English do we throw dead around when we mean, simply, “really” or “very”: “That’s dead easy to make.” “He’s dead lucky to have her.” “I’m dead jealous.”  An American might stop dead in his tracks when he sees a bear, but he won’t be dead scared of it, as most Brits would.

Now, in order to understand the other intensifier with a split personality, let’s look quickly at another subset of sub-modifiers: ones that don’t intensify, but rather do the opposite. Fairly, somewhat and pretty actually weaken rather than intensify the adverbs or adjectives that they modify. They tell you that the quality described by the adverb or adjective is present, but only to a limited extent. “He was fairly enthusiastic.” “She’s pretty good at singing.” Rather is similarly woolly when it comes to modifying: It doesn’t intensify or weaken what follows, but it confirms its existence to a certain or significant extent or degree.

And that leads us to quite — which is quite the quintessential American-British divider. And quite nuanced and difficult to understand. When American speakers say quite, they usually mean “very” – i.e. it’s a straightforward intensifier: “I thought she was quite articulate.” (Meaning “I thought she was very articulate.) In British English quite usually means “fairly” – i.e. not intensifying. “The movie was quite enjoyable, although some of the acting was weak.” But here’s where it gets a little tricky: Speakers of British English sometimes do use quite to mean “very,” but only before words with an extreme meaning: “The whole experience was quite amazing.” “He is quite brilliant.” So Brits use the word both to emphasize and weaken the following adjective, depending on how intense that adjective already is. Quite confused? You probably have to be British — or quite British — to get it. To get a sense of just how nuanced this all is, see the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of quite below. It’s quite interesting — and I’ll leave it up to you to interpret what I mean by that …

(See also Glosso’s earlier post “Quite ambiguous,” written by my British brother.)

Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of quite:

A. adv. I. “As an intensifier: completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent or degree.

A. II: “As an emphasizer: actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably; ‘implying that the case or circumstances are such as fully justify the use of the word or phrase thus qualified’ ( N.E.D. (1902)).”

A. III. “As a moderating adverb: to a certain or significant extent or degree; moderately, somewhat, rather; relatively, reasonably.
This sense is often difficult to distinguish from sense A. II., out of which it developed; the shift in meaning being from ‘certainly having the specified character in (at least) some degree’ to ‘having the specified character in some degree (though not completely)’.

10. Modifying adjectives, adverbs, or verbs. (rare in N. Amer. usage.)
With many adjectives and adverbs (esp. gradable ones), quite is ambiguous between this sense and sense A. I.; in the latter sense it now tends to collocate with particular kinds of adjective and adverb (esp. non-gradable ones).