What’s the trickiest word in American English?

Despite the fact that both Americans and Brits speak English, there are some words we share that don’t quite translate.

I’d better confess right away that I’m not a native American English speaker.

If you could hear my accent, you’d spot in a jiffy that my native variety is British English. But stop, come back, because I can tell you about the most important word to get your head around if you’re communicating with Americans. I know this because I’ve lived in the U.S. for more than a decade now, and it’s still the word that I have to think about every time I use it.

What’s the word? It’s “quite.”

It’s such a common word. Americans use it, Brits use it, and it’s the same word, right? Well no, not quite.

Have a look at these sentences. Both Americans and Brits could say them all. But two of them mean different things, depending on whether an American or a Brit says them. Which ones?

1. This is quite interesting.
2. Quite fascinating, in fact.
3. I’m usually quite good at this kind of exercise.
4. But you’re quite correct. This is tricky.

One common meaning of “quite” in both varieties is “completely.” (See numbers two and four above.) These two sentences mean the same in American and British English.

“Fascinating” and “correct” are both adjectives that can’t be graded, so things are either fascinating/correct or not. There’s no half way about it. But there are other adjectives that are gradable. For example, there can be different degrees of “good” or “interesting.” That’s where things get complicated and “quite” means different things. (See numbers one and three above.)

If your American boss says your work is “quite good,” should you be pleased or a little concerned? In British English “quite good” only means “pretty good” or “fairly good,” but in American English it’s much more positive. “Quite good” means “very good,” so you can give yourself a pat on the back.

And one last piece of advice for any American guys who are planning a first date with an English girl: Don’t be like one of my American friends and tell her you think she is “quite pretty.” He was lucky to get a second date.

Vicki Hollett is an English teacher and course book writer for Oxford University Press and Longman Pearson. She blogs at VickiHollett.com, and contributes to the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where this article originally ran.

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