From reader GW:
If a misnegation contains conflicting indicators of polarity, what is an expression that contains conflicting indicators of intensity?
I’ve been noticing expressions containing the ngram “by far one of the” followed by a superlative. COCA has twelve of them. A typical example is “I mean, it was by far one of the best nights of my life.” Such expressions seem odd to me. Imagine the goodness of someone’s nights plotted on a vertical axis. “By far the best night” would be a lone outlier at the top. “One of the best nights” would lie in a small cluster of outliers, but it wouldn’t be the topmost; if it were, it should simply be called “the best.” (Is that Grice’s Maxim of Quantity?) I can’t visualize where to plot “by far one of the best nights.”
It's not hard to find other evidence suggesting that "by far" sometimes serves as a somewhat more general-purpose intensifier, without an explicit comparative or superlative of the type that GW expects. Here are some examples from COCA:
And so it was a difficult decision, but I think Mitt is by far the person that can go in and win.
But let me tell you, some of the stuff that I get — by far the tough stuff I get is from liberals.
LUNTZ: Do you blame both parties? MCCARTHY: I blame both parties by far.
MORRISON: Did he cheat on you? Ms-KERN: Oh, yeah. By far, yes.
KING: What do you make of the media coverage of Michael Jackson? VENTURA: Well, I think it's over-exposed by far.
Or this example from Switchboard:
i know it takes a lot of extra time but it's it's by far worth it
In these cases, there's an implicit comparison, say to a threshold for applying a predicate like "worth it" or "cheat", and the modifier "by far" is used to indicate that the instance under discussion falls well above the threshold. We can understand "by far one of the best Xs" in the same way: There's a threshold such that things above it count as "one of the best Xs" while things below it don't; and the instance in question is well beyond the threshold, not a marginal case at all.
The Google ngram viewer shows that “by far one of the” has been in continual use since 1800. It peaked in 1813, fell to a sustained low during the first half of the twentieth century, and has been gradually rising since then. In 2000 it was back to about three-quarters of its peak.
In this case, I believe that the early estimates are not a very reliable indication of the popularity of the phase. The search results for the 1800-18012 period, for example, comprise 21 examples, including four copies of this sentence:
Mr. Henry Flood was by far one of the ablest men that ever sat in the Irish parliament.
And four copies of this sentence:
When 1 was prisoner in France, two or three years ago, that emaciated ambassador, whom you sec like a withered apple-john, yonder, was then by far one of the fattest men who walked the streets in Paris.
And three copies of this sentence:
It is not a large house, but by far one of the best proofs of his taste.
In the end there are only eight distinct examples in the 1800-1812 time period, and the apparent peak around 1812-1813 — at a rate that is less than 2 per hundred million words —seems likely to be an artefact caused by a large number of replicated scans of certain books, and a relatively small number of scanned books overall.
Still, it's interesting that there are clear examples from well-written and well-edited works going back 200 years.
I work with a corpus of student writing containing over ten million words, and “by far one of the” occurs six times. The BNC contains one example: “But if the delay is caused by vandalism–by far one of the biggest causes in the North-East–or terrorism, forget it.”
In April 2013, I heard a radio announcer utter an even more bewildering mixture of intensifiers and downtoners. It struck me so much that I immediately wrote it down. He was on WDAV, introing Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He described it as “perhaps inarguably one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.”
We can redeem even that last example in a similar way. There's a set of things that count as "inarguably the greatest pieces of music ever composed". This is a set with fuzzy boundaries, because the threshold for "the greatest pieces" in any individual's evaluation is unclear, and the boundaries get even fuzzier when we consider the opinions of many people and their varied propensity to argue about specific cases. Also, we don't actually have such a tabulation of musical evaluations. But if we really carried out the survey, perhaps the Debussy piece would end up in the "inarguably one of the greatest" category. (All the same, the announcer would have done better to omit all the weaseling, coherent or not, and just said that the work is "one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed".)
Over all, "by far" doesn't seem ever to have been strictly limited to explicit binary comparisons ("X is by far P-er than Y") or explicit unary superlatives ("X is by far the P-est Y"), even though these are by far the commonest uses.