By far one of the best

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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.

GW continues:

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.

GW continues:

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.



  1. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 2:47 am

    I have a vision, which I'm sure is the kind of vision classical radio stations like to provide to their listeners. A bunch of tweedy types are sitting in a wood-panelled library in front of a crackling fire, drinking sherry and debating which works of music should be included in the list of "the greatest".

    Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat? No, says one, I find it a little superficial. Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique? Too bombastic for my taste, says another.

    Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune? Ah, well, of course. Nods and murmurs of assent from all. After a brief pause, the sherry glasses are topped up.

    But weeks later, when one of the participants related these events to a colleague, she is told "Debussy? Well, it didn't make our list. Rather too sentimental for us, I'm afraid."

    What conclusion is one to draw? Is it really inarguably one of the greatest pieces of music? Well, perhaps.

  2. Rosalie said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 3:29 am

    Yes, that Debussy example is off, but what makes it so for me is not the context of the superlative, but the word "inarguably". What the speaker asserted to be "perhaps" true is that it /cannot be argued/ that Debussy's Prélude is "one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed". But why say this at all? I think it more likely that the speaker meant that it is "perhaps indisputably one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed". Perhaps we shouldn't say "perhaps indisputably", but the argument against it is like the peeve against "almost unique".

  3. mollymooly said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:33 am

    Perhaps this is related to one of my pet peeves: "one of the only…" instead of "one of the few…".

  4. Richard said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    Speaking of music, a few pieces bear tempo markings such as "Molto moderato" or "Moderato assai."

  5. Christopher Hodge said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    I suppose all you really need here is a distribution of days by how good they were with a very long thin tail to the right. Then a day falling a long way, but not all the way, up the tail would still be by far, but yet only one of the, best days.

  6. Zubon said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    I can’t visualize where to plot “by far one of the best nights.”

    Given 80 years of life, you have 29,200 nights. Given a standard normal distribution, the top ten nights are about 3.4 standard deviations to the right of the average night. That is where you plot them, and they are by far above average.

  7. Dr. Decay said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    @ Richard
    Personally, I wouldn't bat an eyelash if I heard: "The news elicited a fairly moderate reaction from Prof. X. Treme, and I would only bat my eyelash once at most if I heard "Prof. Treme's reaction was very moderate". So I'm ok with a musical tempo being fairly moderate or even very moderate. I don't know how Italians would feel.

  8. ironcorona said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:11 am

    @Richard Tempo markings like this should be considered technical jargon. They have defined meanings and aren't supposed to be considered grammatically accurate.

  9. Jen said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    Surely it only means that that small cluster of almost-indistinguishable outliers is a long way from the rest, just the same as a single best night would have been?

  10. Mary Apodaca said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    Off-topic: I'm peeved by what I see as an intensifier "forever" in this cliche:

    "And his life changed forever."

    Why forever? Isn't "his life changed" good enough?

  11. Bart said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    What about 'almost probably'?
    'Debussy is almost probably one of the greatest composers.'
    Does it have a sensible meaning or not? I can't decide.

  12. Adrian said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    Mary: No, because if his life has changed, it might not have changed forever.

  13. AJD said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    Mollymooly, would you care to summarize what you find objectionable about "one of the only"?

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    Moderato ma non troppo says it all.

  15. Brett said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    @Rosalie: For some reason "perhaps indisputably" sounds slightly less off than "perhaps inarguably," but I think that's because "indisputable" sounds slightly stronger to me than "inarguable." So it feels more reasonable to hedge one than the other. However, I have no idea whether other people would share my intuition about which descriptor is stronger, and the two words have very, very similar compositional meanings.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    MYL: I agree that your examples for "by far one of the" mean it's far over the threshold, something I wouldn't have been able to state clearly. However, I think GW's original example "by far one of the best nights of my life", could actually refer to a small group of outliers.

    Dan Lufkin and Richard: I do like moderato ma non troppo. However, I've been told that moderato contrasts with faster tempos, not with slower ones, so molto moderato is slower than moderato, and moderato non troppo means (or would mean) "don't let the marking moderato make you play it too slowly". Subject to correction from people who actually know.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Sorry about the missing comma after "example" above.

    AJD: I can't speak for mollymooly, but my objection to "one of the only" is that if it's compositional, it's meaningless. "Only" means there aren't any others, but if you state what group something is "one of the only" members of, then by definition of the group, there are no others. Thus the House Sparrow is one of the only birds that can fly. Quite true: outside the set of flying birds, there are no other birds that can fly.

    Of course, it can be understood non-compositionally. "Only" is normally used to emphasize the smallness of some quantity, so in this one phrase it means that the quantity is small. But there's a perfectly good compositional way to say that: The House Sparrow is one of the few birds that can thrive in heavily paved areas. If we want to emphasize it with "only", we can say it's one of only a few birds that etc. "One of the only" isn't an improvement on "one of the few", and in some cases, it may be worse, as the speaker may have not bothered to check whether there really are only a few and may plan to to fall back, if challenged, on the fact that "one of the only" is tautologically true.

  18. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    @Jerry Friedman: approximately 60 years as a classical musician leads me to suggest that anyone who claims to be one of the "people who actually know" is probably lying. The one that drives me crazy is Andante ma non troppo, since Andante has had widely varying interpretations over time. (This marking appears on Debussy's song Beau soir, which I recently worked on, and which most people seem to perform at a tempo best described as "Adagio, and don't worry about the non troppo part".)

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    @Jerry Friedman. I like what you say on "one of the only". Like mollymooly and yourself, I find it a silly expression.

    @ironcorona. Unfortunately musical expressions don't always have a defined meaning. For example, più andante may mean faster or slower, depending on the composer.

  20. TonyK said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    All your examples can be rendered unexceptionable by changing "by far" to "definitely". Does this mean it's simply a semantic shift, like what happened to "literally"?

    [(myl) Not yet — we're not seeing things like "They're by far coming to dinner on Thursday" or "The screen is by far cracked", where definitely would be fine, but "by far" remains (I think) out of the question.]

  21. TR said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

    Moderato ma non troppo reminds me of very occasionally, which I never know how to interpret — is it supposed to mean more frequently or less frequently than just occasionally? To me, there's nothing in the semantics of occasionally that can be intensified – it just means "every now and then".

  22. Eric P Smith said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    reminds me of very occasionally

    Then there's "very approximately" which logically should mean very nearly, but people use it to mean very roughly.

  23. mollymooly said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    I give Jerry Friedman retroactive permission to speak for me.

  24. Zizoz said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    The comments reminded me of the customer who asked for an "extra-medium" shirt:

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    @Zizoz: in my childhood, eggs in the UK were graded large, standard or medium. So presumably an extra-medium egg would be an extra-small one.

    And a child's academic performance at school was graded excellent, very good, good, fairly good or fair. So presumably an extra-fair performance… No, I'll not go down that road.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    Rosalie: Has "inarguably" ever been used to mean that there's no argument for something? As far as I can tell from COCA and COHA, it always means "indisputably". That meaning isn't compositional, but the cause is lost.

    I was suprised to find no examples of "inarguably" at COHA before 1975, and none at all in the BNC. I'm sure I spelled it right.

  27. The Ridger said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    He is one of the three men in town who could have done this. He is one of the only three men in town who could have done this.

    I find the second statement to be a far more emphatic statement. Intensifiers may only add emotion, but why is that wrong?

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 12:47 am

    The Ridger: Those are the sentences I'm in favor of. The one I dislike (and I'm speaking for mollymooly and Eric P Smith) is "He is one of the only men in town who could have done this."

  29. JS said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 2:21 am

    The set-theoretical-ish complaint about "one of the only" is a bit strange — it requires good faith re: implicature, but what doesn't? And anyway, I don't find "he's one of my only friends" and "he's one of my few friends" equivalent, though it's too late here to ponder why…

  30. ExPat said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    > All your examples can be rendered unexceptionable by changing "by far" to "definitely". Does this mean it's simply a semantic shift, like what happened to "literally"?

    > [(myl) Not yet — we're not seeing things like "They're by far coming to dinner on Thursday" or "The screen is by far cracked", where definitely would be fine, but "by far" remains (I think) out of the question.]

    "Easily" then?

  31. Mr Punch said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    In "by far one of the best nights," "by far" takes the place of "easily" – which is a word that just seems wrong in some contexts ("e.g., "it was easily one of the most difficult tests I ever took").

    The Debussy example is something different, and actually makes sense. It means "I think this piece is one of the greatest ever written, and this opinion may in fact reflect the general consensus."

  32. Brett said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    @Jerry Friedman: We may have rather different feelings about the relative positions of "inarguably" and "indisputably." Certainly they are largely used synonymously. However, I tend to think of "inarguably" as indeed meaning that there is no argument to be made in favor of something. Moreover, I tend to think that this condition is a weaker on that "indisputably," since people routinely dispute points even when there is no real argument against them.

  33. Robert Coren said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    To me, "very occasionally" unambiguously means less frequently than a simple "occasionally". I guess in this instance I'm interpreting "occasionally" = "rarely".

  34. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    I would suppose that 'extra-medium' is parallel to 'extraordinary', (or indeed 'extraterrestrial', etc.) and means something that lies outside the medium. That, of course, doesn't tell us in which direction.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 12:42 am

    JS: Let me put it this way. When people use non-compositional phrases, at least some of their hearers or readers (probably the more literal-minded ones) pay a price—some difficulty in understanding, some jar with the compositional meaning. Many things might be worth that price, such as establishing a tone or register, communicating a nuance, being vivid, and getting an appropriate sound. But as far as I can tell, "one of the only" does none of those things.

    Or is there a nuance? "Is "one of my only friends" more self-pitying than "one of my few friends"? Does "one of the only men in town who could have done this" presuppose that we pretty much know already who could have done it and who couldn't?

    Brett: I take that when you say "inarguably" means there is no argument to be made in favor of something, you mean that when it's used for "indisputably", it's wrong. Do you mean anything beyond that? For instance, is "inarguably" ever used for something there's no argument for? "Gomer Hodge was inarguably the best major-league baseball player in history"? Or do you have something else in mind?

  36. Brett said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I just made a polarity error.

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