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From this week's Studio 360, in an interesting interview with John Irving, this interesting evidence about the meaning of most:

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Kurt Andersen:    I- I read somewhere that you said that now m- most of your audience, you believe, reads you not in English. They are not only overseas but people not in the United Kingdom or Australia. It's- it's people reading in-
John Irving: I wouldn't say- I wouldn't say "most" but I'd say "more than half". Sure, more than half, definitely. I mean I- I sell more books in Germany than I do in the U.S. Uh I s- sell almost as many uh books in- in the Netherlands as I do in the- in the U.S.


Most dictionaries agree with the OED in defining most as something like "modifying a plural count noun: the greatest number of; the majority of". Thus Merriam-Webster tells us plainly and directly that most means "the majority of". The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that a mere plurality might be enough: "in the greatest quantity, amount, measure, degree, or number: to win the most votes".

But Encarta's definition of most offers Irving some daylight: "a grammatical word indicating nearly all or the majority of the people or things mentioned".

I (think I) always took most to mean exactly "more than half", so Irving's "I wouldn't say 'most' but I'd say 'more than half"" took me aback. But apparently different native speakers of English have inferred different meanings for this simple word. Another challenge for "universal grammar"!

[Update: More.]


Also found on Studio 360, this hilarious YouTube trailer for Gary Shteyngart's new novel:

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53 Comments »

  1. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    To me, "the most" means more than anyone else, and can even be less than half. But "most of" implies well over half.

  2. language hat said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    How weird. It never would have occurred to me that anyone used "most" to mean anything other than "more than half." Live and learn.

    The trailer is great!

  3. Heck said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    My first thought was exactly what Ellen wrote. Right on!

  4. Murray Smith said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Langacker nailed "most": see Foundations vol ii, pages 82 and 108.

  5. Geoff Nunberg said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    But those definitions are clearly wrong. It feels odd to say that most American families own their own home or that most Americans live east of the Mississippi or follow major-league baseball, even if that's true of a majority in each case and the wide-scope negations of those sentences don't sit well either. I think 'most' licenses a default generalization, relative to a bunch of pragmatic factors, though I'm not sure how to make that more precise. Barbara?

  6. Jimbino said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    I used to think that "the lion's share" also meant "most."

  7. Michel Sulpin said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Most . Vu par un français est un superlatif. " The most easy way to do something …" La plus facile des manières de faire cette action.
    Most of those people .. La plupart de ces personnes … " more than half" .
    I fill agree with most of your points of view about this world.

    Most can be a panel answer. Not always the true.
    Thanks to Writingislife for initiation. I watch most time CNN
    Regards
    Michel Sulpin

  8. Robert said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    This may be off topic, but what about people for whom "most" can also mean "almost"? I am not one of these, but I have recently been noticing it more and more (and therefore suspect that it started some time in the seventeenth century).

  9. MattF said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    I think 'most' has a normative or qualitative sense in addition to a quantitative sense. So, e.g., Irving is saying that his 'usual' reader is not an English speaker. The exact point when a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference is a hard (and, IMO, technical) question, so the exact distinction between these different senses is going to be difficult to state precisely.

  10. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @Geoff Nunberg: The US population center has been west of the Mississippi for several decades.

  11. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    I would be with John Irving – 51% of a population isn't "most" but around 60-75% would be. (90% or more would be "almost all"; well, until it hit "all" at 100%; and 75-90% would be "a very large majority")(in my mind… I only just quantified these two minutes ago).

    You could say "most humans are male" on the basis of a 105:100 ratio of men to women, and although it may be technically correct it doesn't sound right to me.

  12. George said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    I wonder if 'most' is in process of being demoted because of 'everything,' 'everyone,' etc. I have noticed more and more expressions such as, "everyone was there" or "everyone has an X." When 'everything' means 'most' or 'many,' where does 'most' go? Maybe below 50%, then 'some' goes to 'few' . . . .

    I always (well, maybe 'most' of the time) use most to mean more than 50%.

  13. Jimbino said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    "Most" can also take adjectives beyond this celestial sphere, as in "most unique," "most perfect," and "most complete."

  14. Karl Voelker said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    @Rodger C: You are both right. Geoff didn't say anything about the population center, just about the number of people on each side of the river.

  15. dw said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    @Geoff Nunberg

    But those definitions are clearly wrong. It feels odd to say that most American families own their own home or that most Americans live east of the Mississippi or follow major-league baseball, even if that's true of a majority in each case and the wide-scope negations of those sentences don't sit well either.

    Doesn't feel "clearly wrong", odd, or even wrong at all, to me.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    @Nicholas Waller: Due to rounding, 100% is not always equal to all.

  17. JC Dill said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Trailer?! A movie trailer is a short promotional film for a movie, originally shown at the end (trailing) of a full-length feature film.

    This is simply a video ad for a book. What's wrong with simply calling it an ad? Are we going to redefine all video ads as trailers? Are we going to start referring to the Budweiser Clydesdale ads as trailers?

    Hrumph. (get off my lawn!)

  18. Jimbino said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    Actually, "On account of rounding, 100% is not always equal to all" would be most grammatical.

  19. mollymooly said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Here's a test: is the phrase "not quite most of them" well-formed? If so, what does it mean? For me, it's meaningless.

    Consider…

    (1) "I have the most widgets" means a plurality;

    (2) "I have most of the widgets" means a supermajority; but does

    (3) "I have most widgets" mean a bare majority?

    In my idiolect, (3) is the same as (1) for this example. But in…

    (1a) "The most oysters I ever ate (was 36)"

    (2a) "Most of the oysters I ever ate (were raw)"

    (3a) "Most oysters I ever ate"

    …(3a) is the same as (2a).

  20. sarang said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    I think "the most" is a red herring here; it's a garden-variety superlative that doesn't relate to "most of" (as Ellen said). [cf. "The most we ever had..." etc.] For instance, Obama did not get "most of the votes" even though he got "the most votes." I think "most" in the first sense is closer to "almost all" — everyone except for a set of measure zero — though a little weaker than "almost all." That's how I'd normally hear it except when reading a David Brooks column — in which case it has no determinate meaning.

  21. John Cowan said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Most people are men, but only by about 1%: the sex-ratio at birth doesn't reflect the sex-ratio in the population as a whole.

    And I think "Most people are men" is a very bizarre statement, as is "Most people are women". For me too, "most" has a defeasible implicature of "much more than a majority".

  22. T.T. said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    "Most X are Y", to me, means a substantial majority of X are Y—certainly more than 50%-plus-1. Even two-thirds feels borderline. I have seen and been annoyed by the the synonymous-with-"majority" usage, but I assumed it was journalistic ineptitude and not a genuine difference in usage.

    It's not an esoteric question; if a newspaper reports that for the first time, most Montrealers are not francophone because 52% are not francophones (using a narrow definition of francophoneness, but let's leave that aside), it creates a different impression (for me) than for the first time, a majority of Montrealers are not francophone.

  23. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    @Karl Voelker: Right, I forgot about that pesky torque business.

  24. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Most may not even be many, as best may not even be good. Most of our sun's planets orbit outside Earth's orbit.

    My child was graded one of: "most of the time", "some of the time", and "seldom" at demonstrating skills in various subjects when in the early elementary grades. I thought it curious that all of these choices are actually "some of the time".

  25. George said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: "Most may not even be many . . ."

    Maybe it is the other way. 'Many' may be relative to a norm, an ideal or expectations. An example:

    1. Many motorist died on the highways over the weekend.

    2. *Most motorists died on the highways over the weekend.

    Although a very small percentage of motorists actually died, we can appropriately say 'many." On the other hand, 2. would be immediately understood as false since only a small percentage of motorists died.

  26. wren ng thornton said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    I also completely agree with Ellen K.'s definition. I've always been taken aback by semanticists who try to define "most" as a quantifier meaning >50% since clearly "most" is not the same as "more than half".

  27. marie-lucie said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    Michel Sulpin:

    " La plus facile des manières de faire cette action…"

    Alors, on ne dit plus "la façon la plus facile de faire …" ?

  28. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Wren: since clearly "most" is not the same as "more than half"

    Clearly? How so? Most has always meant "more than half (but less than all)" to me. If there are 100 of us and I say "Most of us stayed behind" I mean between 51 and 99. "Many of us", "some of us" and "a few of us" are harder to quantify, but they'd be about 25-75, 3-49 and 3-20, respectively.

    I'm actually finding it hard to believe that some people don't mean "more than half" when they use "most", but there you go. Perhaps such people believe that expressions such as "Most people prefer Coke to/than Pepsi" are solecistic for "More people prefer…" (and perhaps they're right).

  29. Nick Lamb said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    I think it's interesting that so many readers of this thread would feel deceived if I said "most of the …" and meant 50% plus one. I certainly would not feel that I had intentionally deceived them, and I wouldn't even feel that I was being disingenuous in choosing "most" to describe this situation.

    I have a feeling that what we're really up against is something beyond language. I suspect we're back to public understanding of science (in this case, statistics).

    One way in which calling 50% plus one "most" would be disingenuous certainly does have to do with statistics. If I have a survey result, in which 501 of 1000 people chose A over B, a claim that "most people chose A" is unfounded unless I say "in the survey", because 1 in 1000 is too small a margin to be statistically significant across the wider population even with a proper survey technique.

  30. Jen said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    I am a red-blooded American. Let me assure you "most" means like around 70-90%. 51% is definitely not most. 51% is a majority. "most" means "nearly all". 51% is too close to 50% to mean "most". "most" means "the vast majority". 51% is not the vast majority.

    Also, FYI, many people think "couple" means "a few" or "some", and not exactly "two". I used to think this way until college, when I looked the word up in the dictionary. I saw a young black teenage male get chewed out by a white daytime TV show female judge about 10 years ago for denying "a couple" meant "two" when the judge asked him how many of whatever items he had or whatever. He claimed it meant about two or three or four. IOW, "a couple" meant "some". It's too bad we have judges here who are unfamiliar with linguistics and AAVE. I was deeply disturbed by this encounter and the judge's lack onf understanding.

  31. Michael W said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    I'm not entirely sure if my own usage corresponds to this, but I had a thought: 'most' as a bare majority may be more likely to require a significant lead over the next largest group. Thus "most people are men", or any two-way split is odd at 51%, because the next smallest group is so similar in size. But a statement like "most computers are made by Dell" would be more acceptable if, say, Dell has a 51% share, and the rest of the market is split into companies selling 10% or so each.

    In general I think I side more with Irving in that 'most' is much more than half, all else being equal.

  32. language hat said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    It feels odd to say that most American families own their own home or that most Americans live east of the Mississippi or follow major-league baseball, even if that's true of a majority in each case

    Not to me. Not even a little bit.

    I am a red-blooded American. Let me assure you "most" means like around 70-90%. 51% is definitely not most. 51% is a majority. "most" means "nearly all". 51% is too close to 50% to mean "most". "most" means "the vast majority". 51% is not the vast majority.

    Also, FYI, many people think "couple" means "a few" or "some", and not exactly "two". I used to think this way until college, when I looked the word up in the dictionary.

    Don't you feel even a teeny bit of cognitive dissonance there? On the one hand, "couple" means 'two' because it says so in the dictionary; on the other, you don't care what the dictionary says, "most" means 70-90%. Sheesh.

  33. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    I'm struck by the number of people on this thread (including a distinguished linguist) who state that it's "clear," needing no proof beyond assertion, that 'most' cannot properly be used to mean 51%. I'm a native speaker, and like languagehat, I have no trouble at all with that usage. (I just wrote a scholarly paper in which I used 'most' to refer to four items in a sample of seven.) I'd be interested to know how common each approach is, but I don't think either one is self-evident.

  34. Mai Kuha said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    "But apparently different native speakers of English have inferred different meanings for this simple word."

    I've been looking out for cases like this. One student volunteered that she grew up thinking that "anchovies" referred to olives. (She didn't like olives, so she'd say "hold the anchovies", get a pizza without olives, and be happy.) Another student courageously reported that, until the age of 20 or so, he had thought that "approximately" meant "exactly" (I guess it had just seemed to him that lots of things in life happened to come in round numbers: "When will we get there?" "In approximately two hours") and another student chimed in: "Me too!"

    Maybe this happens more often than we realize.

  35. James Kabala said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    There's no doubt in my mind that "most" means "any amount more than half," but I think (although I never thought about it consciously before) that if I were speaking or writing about a bare majority I might use "more than half of Xs" or "a majority of Xs" rather than "most Xs." "Most Xs" does have a bit of a connotation of "the typical X."

  36. Kylopod said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    I always thought most had a meaning very similar to "the vast majority of." It's subjective where to draw the line, of course, but 51% seems awfully low. Would we say that most people on the planet are women?

  37. fog said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    My first thought was to say that most is the same as la plupart, but I doubt that translating is making anything clearer. I think I choose to use the word "most" when I want you to round up to 100%, but choose say something else like "a bit more than half" when I wish I had a lower percentage to report.

    The transcription of the exchange made me notice that both of the speakers said "I-I" or repeat sounds/words/phrases. It makes them seem smart to me, even though I would probably not choose that as being characteristic of expert speech.

  38. Craig said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    @Jen, I think the usage of "a couple" may be a regional question, rather than AAVE. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic where "a couple (of)" meant "a few" or "some", but when I went off to graduate school in the Western US, I was surprised to find that "couple" was always used in its literal meaning of "two".

  39. Tim said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    …but does (3) "I have most widgets" mean a bare majority?

    To me, "I have most widgets" would suggest that the speaker's first language was not English. I might expect that the widgets are going to be used to defeat "moose and squirrel", perhaps.

    The only context I can think of where "I have most widgets" would sound correct to me would be a case where there is a set number of widgets to be collected, and someone is saying that they have collected a majority of them. It would be like saying "I have most Beatles albums, but I'm still missing two of them."

  40. George said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    It probably sheds no light on the most-equals-51% question in English, but in Cairene Arabic, the dictionary equivalent (exact equivalent?) for ‘most’ mu'zam is, “the majority of” which would literally be 51%.

    However, my wife, a native speaker, insists that she would never use mu'zam for 51%, that it requires an overwhelming majority in the range +75%.

  41. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    Mai Kuha: True. But this case seems special, because in the cases you quote it's clear which group is right; the people who assign an odd meaning to the word are a minority and are prepared to abandon their use when they find out it isn't the normal one. While with 'most' it's clear that the two groups are both substantial, and neither is prepared to give way. (I don't actually think 'most' is the only word of which this is true; in philosophical debates one often comes across cases where two groups are using a word in different ways, and each is taking it for granted that its way is the right one. I think 'mistake', 'promise', 'choice' are possible examples of this.)

  42. Topher said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    My take on this: a classic case of connotation vs denotation. I'm comfortable with the word meaning "over half." But it wouldn't normally be used (in my idiolect) in cases where it was barely over half. It has a connotation, to me, of "substantially over half." If someone were to use "most" for, say, 51% and was not summarizing a more precise statement or did not follow up with a more precise statement I would feel that they were being deceptive. With context indicating that the connotation is not intended I feel comfortable with it being used for, say, "4 out of 7".

    Clearly for some the connotation is weak enough as to be essentially nonexistent while for others it is so strong it is essentially denotational. Given this range I would say that Irving was correct to avoid the term as it would have been deceptive to some listeners, even if he personally did not "feel" the connotation very strongly.

    Topher

  43. Jen said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    @Jen, I think the usage of "a couple" may be a regional question, rather than AAVE. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic where "a couple (of)" meant "a few" or "some", but when I went off to graduate school in the Western US, I was surprised to find that "couple" was always used in its literal meaning of "two".

    Thanks! Now I don't feel so alone. I too grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region in upstate New York, for the most part. Maybe it is a dialectal thing!

    Also, since we are confessing our knowledge gaps, I used to think professors got tenure only when they were promoted to full professor, and not associate professor (supposedly, Harvard is the only school which does that). And I used to think the SIL was the same as the biennial LSA Summer Institute/Linguistics Institute. I also thought "fuchsia" was spelled "fuschia" and "minuscule" was spelled "miniscule" until sometime after college, at which time I remembered my German and Latin, respectively. I still notice those two spelling mistakes all the time even among supposedly well-educated writers. Oh, and I spelled "pursuant" as "persuant" one time as a senior in college, thinking it was related to "per", the preposition.

  44. rachel said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    Some folks at the linguistics department at University of Maryland looked into most a few years back. Here's a link to the paper:

    http://www.ling.umd.edu/~timh/most/salt2008-paper.pdf

  45. Joyce Melton said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:48 am

    Most means:

    1. Nearly all
    2. More than half
    3. A plurality

    It has all three meanings, usually clarified by context or auxiliaries. What's the problem? Isolating the word and saying it means just this and nothing else is nonsense, language doesn't work that way.

    [(myl) This might indeed be true. But it's hard to square it with the results of the experiments linked here. ]

  46. language hat said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    It has all three meanings, usually clarified by context or auxiliaries.

    Not for all of us, it doesn't. Please don't take your own use as normative.

  47. Richard said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    Where do people who use "most" to mean "overwhelming majority" come from? I grew up in the Midwest, and always thought "most" meant 51% or more. Oh, and I always thought "a couple" meant "a few" until I encountered people who thought it meant exactly 2.

  48. Rodger C said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    My mother once said I could buy "a couple of books," and I bought three or four. She reminded me of what she said, and I pointed to the dictionary: "Couple: 1. Two. 2. An unspecified small number."

  49. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    A bit late to be piling on here, but I'd agree with commenters above that "most" means, as a matter of denotation, "more than half", but often implies "significantly more than half" (where "significant" has its everyday, rather than statistical, meaning); I wouldn't normally expect "most" to mean "50% plus epsilon", and wouldn't normally use the word that way, but I would be only mildly surprised if someone else did. For the simple majority case, I would be more likely to say "a majority of" or "more than half" than "most". (I'm not sure where the breakpoint is — perhaps around two thirds — but I have no way to determine this experimentally.)

  50. On ‘A Couple’ of Something | The Linguistics & English Language Society said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    [...] 'A Couple' of Something Written by richard on 11 August 2010 The recent posts on Language Log concerning the conception of 'most', how the value varies from more [...]

  51. langsoc.eusa.ed.ac.uk» Blog Archive » On ‘A Couple’ of Something said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    [...] 'A Couple' of Something The recent posts on Language Log concerning the conception of 'most', how the value varies from more [...]

  52. Andrew (yet another) said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Can 'most' ever be less than 50%? If you have a group of people such that
    40% drive to work alone,
    20% drive in a carpool,
    15% take the train,
    15% take the bus, and
    10% work from home,

    can't we accurately say that most people drive to work alone? Or is it simply 'the most common' form of transportation?

  53. Andrew (yet another) said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    cf. 'Most people are Chinese.' In this sentence it seems clearly wrong.

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