May 24, 2007

Quite who talks likes this? Not me!

According to "Unwelcome Guests", Guardian Unlimited, 5/25/2007,

Quite who Fatah al-Islam are, or where they came from, is a matter of dispute.

That quite took me by surprise, though I'm not sure why. "Just who..." would have been fine, or "Exactly who..."

And I have no problems with "quite who" in complement clauses, like these from the current crop on Google News (though I think I tend to use "exactly" for the same function, myself):

“I wasn’t sure quite who to call,” she said.
... if we never know quite who this man is, we still can't stop thinking about him.
We wonder quite who he could have been talking about.

Likewise, "quite who" following a form of "to be" seems OK to me (as long as quite's polarity requirements are met -- see below):

No one is quite who they seem to be in "The Last Time," a twisty drama set against the backdrop of the high-pressure advertising business.
All of the supporting cast excel, although the most impressive are Sebastian Koch as a Nazi who sees the war's end coming and tries to be kind to the Dutch people, and Thom Hoffman as a Resistance member and a doctor who is not quite who he appears to be.

But "quite who" in subject position seems weird to me. Could it be a British thing?

In the Language Log archives, we have three examples of {"just who"}, and two of {"exactly who"}, but none of {"quite who"} in any context.

In the NYT archives since 1981, there are 11 examples of "quite who", of which only one is in subject position (Paul Griffiths, "Finding Monteverdi in the Now", 6/7/1998):

''ARIANNA,'' which will be given its first American performance today by the Opera Theater of St. Louis, is not exactly a new work and not exactly an old one. Quite who wrote it is also in doubt.

(I gather from various internet clues that Paul Griffiths is either from the UK, or has spent some time there.)

In contrast, there are 1,103 uses of "just who" in the NYT archive since 1981 -- 100 times more than "quite who" -- and many of them are in subject position, like these:

Just who is in charge there?
But just who most benefits has never been determined by scientific research, Dr. Henry said.
Just who uses mag crews is in dispute.

Again, for me, quite doesn't work in such examples: "Quite who is in charge there?" No, I don't think so.

The NYT since-1981 archive has 829 examples of "exactly who", including subject-position examples like

Exactly who are we?
Exactly who removed Alatriste not only from the famed painting but from a play written about the Breda siege?
Golden tells us that the admissions process, at least at the 100 top colleges and universities, is not a meritocracy — and exactly who thought it was? — but a marketplace.

Ditto for these -- "Quite who are we?" No way.

If we search the Guardian's current crop of articles, we find 55 examples of "quite who", and many of them are in subject position (in a matrix clause or in a sentential subject):

Quite who to believe in this battle of the brickwork is something of a dilemma.
Quite who would recommend Albert Luque to anyone is as unknown as Casper Bellyodyssey (and you've never heard of him, have you?), but the flaky Spanish winger is contemplating a move away from Newcastle.
Quite who is doomed, and why, has varied with the development of his thought.
Though quite who else might buy such a shade of pink is uncertain.
Quite who Vieira would play with in Madrid remains to be seen.
Quite who would look good in an argyll-print jacket with giant fur sleeves will remain a mystery...
Quite who is saving money here?

Some of these don't seem so bad to me -- especially the subjects of sentential subjects -- but I think I'm beginning to suffer the fate of any open-minded person who ponders a few dozen examples of a foreign usage.

The same Guardian archive finds 450 examples of "just who" -- that's about 8 times more, but you'll recall that the NYT had 100 times more in the corresponding comparison. So the hypothesis that "quite who" is a Britishism in general, and especially in subject position, seems to be confirmed.

What I can't figure out is why Americans should object to "quite who" in subject position but not elsewhere. It seems to have something to do with polarity -- thus my judgments are:

I don't know exactly who is responsible.
I know exactly who is responsible.

I don't know quite who is responsible.
*I know quite who is responsible.

But I believe that speakers of British English have the same pattern -- at least, the Guardian has

"I|you|we|they don't know quite who|what|where|why|how" 6
"I|you|we|they know quite who|what|where|why|how" 0
"I|you|we|they don't know exactly who|what|where|why|how" 24
"I|you|we|they know exactly who|what|where|why|how" 85

Do British speakers have different rules about the scope of polarity-licensing operators? Or is (this sense of) quite not really a polarity item for our British cousins, despite the evidence in the table above? Perhaps some well-informed and sociolinguistically-inclined syntactician or semanticist will enlighten this befuddled phonetician.

[Update -- Lynne Murphy has a lovely follow-up over at Separated by Common Language (quite wh-), which features comparative British and American counts of total and sentence-intitial quite, exactly and just, for how, why, what and who, along with some speculations about possible connections to trans-Atlantic differences in the meaning and use of other kinds of quite.]

[Update -- Chris Brew writes:

Your Guardian example

  Quite who Fatah al-Islam are, or where they came from, is a matter of dispute.

works fine for me. I am a little discomfited by the number agreement, because I am in the process of internalizing the "<Organization> is " versus "<Organization> are" distinction that my British upbringing led me to fall on the opposite side of from most Americans. But "Quite who" is fine in subject position. As are "Quite what", "Quite how" and "Quite why".

It may be somehow relevant that "quite" in British is more often in the sense which means somewhat (e.g. "Their argument was quite reasonable. but flawed") than in the sense (more common here, I think) of "Quite perfect/excellent/" which more or less implies having gone all the way along that dimension.

If I wrote sentences starting with things like "Quite who do you suppose would accept this paper?" and so on, I'd definitely be being obnoxious. So I try not to.

Well, "Exactly who do you suppose would accept this paper?" is not especially tactful, either...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 24, 2007 08:55 PM