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Quite vs. rather

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What is the difference between quite and rather?

Posted 07 August 2002


Rather, but not quite, is used to signal an alternative idea, as in

He’s a writer, or rather an aspiring writer.

According to the Longman Language Activator, (Longman, 1993), both quite and rather are used to modify adjectives and adverbs to mean “more than a little, but not very”:

He’s quite well-known.
She greeted me quite cheerfully.
You seem rather unhappy today.
It was a rather sad occasion.

This meaning is described as being used “especially in British English.” A search of the Collins COBUILD Online Collocation Sampler reveals, however, that this usage is very frequent in both British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). The Language Activator states further that rather is often used to describe “something bad, unsuitable, etc.” The COBUILD Sampler turns up more instances of negative adjectives in AmE than it does in BrE.

In general, rather has less force than quite. Rather means “somewhat, to a certain degree.” Quite, in contrast, can mean “to a significant degree. “ When someone is rather sad, the degree of sadness is less than if the person is quite sad.

In both AmE and BrE, quite can mean “to a significant degree,“ as in

He drove quite slowly this time, for which I was thankful.

Quite, especially in BrE, can indicate a very high degree in affirmative statements:

Is he well-known? Oh yes, quite!
I quite agree with you!
I haven’t seen him in quite some time.

In the negative, quite, but not rather, can mean “almost completely”:

I’m not quite ready to go. (I’m not completely ready, but almost.)

At the same time, quite, depending on the speaker’s intent, may express a not-very-high degree:

The film was quite interesting, but not memorable.

Quite may be used with a, the, or some and a noun:

He’s quite a ladies’ man.
She made quite a fuss.
He’s quite the little peacock, isn’t he?
You’re quite some dancer!

Rather a is used, chiefly in BrE:

He’s rather a bore, don’t you think?

Rather a is used, more in BrE but also in AmE, with an adjective and a noun:

They gave me rather a long list.
It was rather a minor incident.

Quite a is used, especially in AmE, with expressions of quantity or number:

There were quite a few questions about the Middle East.
It was quite a long ordeal.
He had quite a lot of trouble with his in-laws.
She’s waited quite a bit longer to pay this time.

Marilyn Martin


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