query on usage (a not quite clear result)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri May 22 15:24:10 UTC 2009

I was struck by this line in Jane Austen's _Emma_ (1815):  "pretty
well but not quite well".  The larger context is:

"Oh! good Mr. Perry- how is he, sir?"
"Why, pretty well; but not quite well. Poor Perry is bilious, and he
has not time to take care of himself."

For my intuitions of what is natural in contemporary U.S. English,
this is not a possible utterance, given what "pretty X" and "not
quite X" convey.  If "quite" really just meant 'wholly, completely'
even in negative contexts (as the OED entry suggests), this should be
possible, as indeed are

"He's pretty well, but not completely/totally well"

For me these are impeccable, with natural stress falling on
"completely/totally"--but such stress on "quite" doesn't help for me
with "pretty well but not quite well", and indeed stressing "quite"
in a sequence of "not quite [Adjective]" often seems  Is my judgment
here  idiosyncratic?  A google search of this sequence, not
surprisingly, pulls up many hits for the line from Emma and various
irrelevant ones like "pretty well, but not quite well enough", which
is fine for me.  I'm not sure this is conclusive, though, since there
are no hits at all for the "completely" or "totally" counterparts
above, which as noted I find impeccable.

Of course YMMV, but that's why I'm posting.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list