Q: Since the ‘80s, I’ve heard folks use the noun “quality” as an adjective meaning of good quality. I first noticed this when a baseball commentator spoke of a “quality pitch.” Soon hospitals were offering “quality health care.” Is that excellent or horrible quality? The quality of my mercy is strained.
A: Many usage experts agree with you and frown on “quality” as an adjective meaning “excellent” or “of high quality.” My feeling is that these mavens are going to have to get used to it.
In fact, the usage isn’t as new as you think. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says this sense of “quality” dates from 1936, half a century before you noticed it.
And hundreds of years before that, the word was used in compounds to describe something “of high social standing, of good breeding, noble,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED gives examples like “quality lady,” “quality acquaintance,” and “quality blood,” dating from 1701.
Here, “quality” was apparently being used as an attributive noun (one that modifies other nouns) and meant something like “high class” or “noble.”
In the 20th century, “quality” has often been used to mean culturally superior, as in “a quality audience,” or “a quality magazine.”
And it’s routinely used in such phrases as “quality control,” “quality assurance,” “quality management,” and “quality time.”
Today, both Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) list adjectival definitions of “quality” as simply meaning high quality.
So the usage is considered standard English. In fact, American Heritage‘s illustrative example is “the importance of quality health care.”
Thus does language change (though sometimes it’s a strain!). And let your mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”