In Words

Spitfire flying

This year I made a New Year’s resolution to be more definite. Or maybe it was last year? I’m not sure. Anyway, the crux of it was to stop using words like ‘might’ and ‘quite’ that blur your meaning and leave everybody none the wiser, including yourself. “I might go to the shop.” “I quite like that. It’s quite good.” What use are such statements to anyone?

“I’m going to the shop.” “I like that. It’s good.” Come on, that’s way better, isn’t it? You know where I stand now, don’t you? Colours firmly nailed to the mast. And it saves time and paper.

A couple of hundred years ago, though, we didn’t use the word ‘quite’ as we do today: to mean ‘fairly’; we used it as we do today: to mean ‘completely’ or ‘wholly’. People would say ‘quitely’ to mean ‘extremely’.

Here’s a vestige of that more definite meaning: It’s quite a thing when you reach maturity and realise that innocent little words that you’ve been using all your life are actually cloaked in mixed meanings – and doubly so when you get two in the same phrase, eg ‘quite a few’.

Few is a foxy little word, an elusive, cunning quantity that defies definition. If I say ‘quite a few’, that means ‘a lot’, right? Yet ‘few’ means ‘not many’. But if I say ‘a few’, that means several. Yet if I go a step further and say ‘very few’, we’re back to hardly any at all. Phew! Who invented this confounded language!

But I guess that’s the beauty of it. That flexibility is what makes it such a useful brush stroke within such a colourful language. While no-one knows exactly how many ‘few’ amounts to, whether we’re talking Battle of Britain pilots, TfL brain cells, Tory votes or Man City fans, we can all see well enough what’s intended every time it’s used. We don’t need absolute quantities and precision, otherwise we’d all work for the planning department. We are impressionists. We leave the realism to the Dutch.

So next year, I think I’m definitely going to make a resolution to be more vague.

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