Subjective Modifiers, Continued

On NBC’s June 18 Nightly News, Lester Holt asked Kristen Bell about the number of current-events discussions she’s had with her two girls (5 and 7) recently. Kristen replied, “Quite a few.” And then it struck me: “Quite a few”? How weird is it that people use “quite a few” to connote “quite a lot”? It doesn’t make sense. (“Quite” doesn’t make much sense either, given that it has no meaning. How much more is “quite a lot” than just “a lot”? And, for that matter, how many are “a lot” or “a few”? But that’s an issue for a different column.)

Suppose you asked the owner of a recently reopened tavern about diminished pandemic patronage. “How many folks did you have in here last night?” you ask. Knowing that total patronage amounted to three people and five beers the night before, the dispirited owner responds with a sigh and, “A few.”

“What’s ‘a few’?” you ask, wanting to know the quantity that the two words actually represented. The bar owner – a strict grammarian – provides more detail by saying, “Quite a few,” meaning “really a few”; as in “as-close-to-zero-as-you-can-get-without-being-there few.” And, clearly, that’s what “quite a few” should mean: A startling amount of few. But it doesn’t. Instead, it means the exact opposite: “Quite a lot.”

If you want to say “quite a lot,” shouldn’t you just say “quite a lot” and not “quite a few”? I guess so. But how many people say “quite a lot” instead of “quite a few”? Quite a few, evidently. And how many say “quite a few” instead of “quite a lot”? Also quite a few.

I’m confewsed.

June 2020