Monday, August 23, 2010

What does "most" mean?

In online discussions, I have come across an interesting disagreement over the meaning of a common word. To my ear, "most" means a large majority. To at least some others, it means any majority. Checking online dictionary definitions, I was surprised to find that many supported their meaning for the word rather than mine. Looking at an old Merriam-Webster's unabridged this morning, I found that the first definition included both alternatives.

To take a simple example, which of these statements is true?

"Most inhabitants of the U.S. speak English."

"Most inhabitants of the U.S. are female."

To my ear, the first statement is true, the second false. By the alternative interpretation of "most," both are true.

The situation is complicated by the fact that "most," in a different context, can be used to mean a plurality. In a three way election, the candidate with the most votes might have only 40% of the total. This usage is sometimes, but not always, signaled by the form "the most."

Comments? How do other people use the word? Does anyone have a plausible explanation of why both meanings appear to be common?


Tom Courtney said...

I think most has two usages: the first is the one you are accustomed to; the second comes from questions like "who has the most gold?", where the answer can be someone with one more gold piece than the second most.

I would say your second example isn't a correct usage, though that would partially be because you're comparing two things, and so I'd use "more".

Anonymous said...

The gricean maxim of relevance would presumably have effect here. In a context where what would be relevant to the conversation is whether there is a substantial majority, then "most" would reasonably be interpreted as meaning a substantial majority. A bare majority is often not worth bringing up, and so someone bringing it up would be in violation of the maxim. People are assumed to obey the maxim, and so if someone says "most", then he is understood, in accordance with the maxim, to mean a substantial majority.

Anonymous said...

Here's another application of the maxim of relevance. Suppose someone says, "you have dirt on your face". You naturally interpret them to mean that you have a substantial, visible amount of dirt on your face, even though, technically, their statement would be correct even if you had only a microscopic amount of dirt on your face.

On second thought, the gricean maxim of quantity may be a better fit. You do not benefit from bring informed of microscopic dirt, so informing you of it violates the maxim of quantity.

In any case, "dirt on your face" is reasonably understood to mean, "a substantial amount of dirt on your face". In other contexts, meanwhile, it may be appropriate to discuss microscopic amounts of dirt, eg on a digital camera's sensor, or in surgery.

Jay Cross said...

I agree with Tom ... though I'm having a similar issue with the word most in the statement "Brazil has the most beautiful women in the world". Does it modify women or beautiful, and if so, how? The meaning of the word "most" depends on context.

John said...

I recently came across a similar issue while on a cruise. The brochure I was given after purchasing the cruise said "some" of the restaurants on the ship had a "nominal" charge. The truth was that well over a majority (10 out of 13) had a charge, and those charges weren't nominal (in the sense that the flat fee was about the same amount you'd pay to eat at a restaurant of a similar quality). On check out, I told the clerk that they should change their brochure, because "some" NEVER means "most". What do you think? Can "some" ever mean "most"? I think most always implies at least majority, and can be used to describe even a simple majority.

Anonymous said...

Yet substantial amount of dirt on the face is consistent with "some visible dirt" (meaning, "a little"). It doesn't have to cover most (meaning, >=50%, >=66%?) of the face :). In other words, it's enough that quarter of your left check is dirty (say, from accidental finger prints). This is because the default state is presumed to be "clean face." (but if we're talking to a coal miner, then perhaps a different standard is used)
@John: very interesting case. From LOGICAL point of view, they are correct. For example, if you take LSAT, you'll learn that some means "there exists at least one" which is logically consistent with "all" (all->some, some is necessary condition for all).

From legal point of view, I suspect you are correct and a reasonable judge may find deceptive advertisement as to what reasonable people may expect. (again, depending on what "nominal" is -- Sorites paradox).

Anonymous said...

"Yet substantial amount of dirt on the face is consistent with "some visible dirt" (meaning, "a little")."

Yes, but that is what I said. I said:

"substantial, visible amount of dirt on your face, even though, technically, their statement would be correct even if you had only a microscopic amount of dirt on your face"

Visible is a subset of substantial. The contrast I was making use of was between visible and microscopic.

" It doesn't have to cover most"

Of course, but that's neither here nor there. I wasn't saying anything about "most" in that comment. It was a separate example of how gricean maxims affect how words are understood.

Anonymous said...

Language Log discussed this earlier this month:

You may find their discussion interesting.

Anonymous said...

From reading your blog for a long time, I'm pretty sure you'd be surprised that a good many of the words you use have different meanings from what you expect.

I suspect this happens frequently to members of the economic/libertarian sect where redefinition of regular words to mean something else is de rigueur.

William H. Stoddard said...

I haven't consciously analyzed my usage, but let me think about it.

I'm running three tabletop rpg campaigns. They have a total of fifteen players. Seven of them are women. I wouldn't say, "Most of my players are male." Rather, I'd say, "Around half my players are male." Now, if I had five women, "Most of my players are male" would sound right to me.

I think that what "most" means to me is "outside the range of random fluctuation around half." How big that is, intuitively, will vary from case to case, in a way I can't make precise.

Rex Little said...

I'm pretty sure most people (i.e., a substantial majority) understand "most" the way David does. When people use it the other way, it's often with intent to mislead (by creating an impression of a larger majority than in fact exists). When they're called on it, they can fall back on the pedantic dictionary definition.

Phil Birnbaum said...

To me, you use "most" only when "about half" would not be appropriate. The two are mutually exclusive.

If you want to emphasize that the number is over 50%, and "about half" would still be correct, you say "more than half."

Karl said...

Personally, I tend to use "most" at a supermajority, around two-thirds. Technically, "most" is a superlative, and whichever entity has the greatest amount of "more" qualifies.

This contrasts, by the way, with what I've heard about product advertising. Toothpastes advertise as having "the most cavity preventing fluoride", but can't advertise as having "more" of the stuff, because all the fluoridated toothpastes have the same amount.

And then there's the grammatical nitpick by which some train station is the largest on the East Coast, but not the largest in Boston. (There are two; it's the larger in Boston.)

But this leads to mental mosturbation.

Karl said...

I think the point is, "most" is an example of a fuzzy set, with no fixed definition.

Unknown said...

Similar issue with the word "some.". I recall learning its definition in a math or logic class as "one or more, up to and including all."

This kind of precision in definition is obviously helpful in sry theory.

It's also helpful in marketing when trying to make true but strong-sounding claims. For the same reason, we should always be suspicious when these kinds of words are used by lawyers and politicians.

I.e., show me the data!

Kid said...

Virtually everyone cheats, but also virtually everyone still wants to feel good about themselves. Even when given a cheating opportunity without any chance to get caught, most people cheat only a little.

However, cheating gets worse when there is an easy way to circumvent the conscience.

Using "most" when it is misleading but technically true is one such situation. You know it is misleading, but you can tell your conscience that it is technically true. That's why lies like that might be more common than other lies.

Genius said...

What an interesting discussion! I very consciously use "most" to mean any majority, 50% +1 of any group, because I understand that to be its literally correct meaning. But I also think there's an implicit normal meaning of "most" than means something more like "a visible majority" or "a notable majority." I believe this might be a symptom of living in such a deeply democratic society, in which people apply the concept "majority rules" to all different parts of life, even counting things in an apolitical way. Democracy has caused us to evolve away from being able to make clear mental distinctions between "a majority" and "a vast majority." We want every majority to be decisive so we can feel that it's correct and justified.

lelnet said...

I would contend that, in typical conversation, "most" means "the largest share, by a noteworthy margin". What sort of margin is "noteworthy" is situational, of course, and can lie in the eye of the beholder.

For example, in a three-way election, it'd be skirting the edge of misleading to say that the guy who got 40% (to his competitors' 35% and 25%, say) got "most" of the votes. But if there were, say, 16 candidates all running against each other, one of them got 40% of the votes, and all of the others were clustered in the 1%-5% range, it'd be a lot more fair to say that the winner's plurality was "most" of the votes, even though it still isn't actually a majority.

Jonathan said...

I've looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, and the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition. Both support me in thinking that 'most' merely means "more than any other group"; thus, all three of your examples are correct.

It's an old word: the OED gives examples of usage going back to 893 AD.

"Most inhabitants of the U.S. are female" doesn't sound false to me. What it means is that 51 to 99% of inhabitants are female, which is a pretty wide range, so the statement could be rephrased to be more accurate and informative.

Anonymous said...

In mathematical logic, "some" does indeed mean "at least one", including several, thousands, a majority, and all (of a non-empty set; it does not include all of an empty set).

My students have a lot of trouble with that last bit. For example, the statement "some living unicorns are green" is false, but the statement "all living unicorns are green" is true because it has no counterexample, which would be a non-green living unicorn. But for "most" of mathematics, it works much better to define "all X are Y" as meaning "no X fails to be Y", which is always true when there are no X's at all.

Back to "most". Here's a question: does it include "all"? (Let's leave aside the empty set for now: I have no idea what "most" of an empty set is.) Some people would say "no: if all X are Y, it's misleading to say that 'most' X are Y, because that implies that some aren't." Others (including most mathematicians) would say "yes: the truth value of 'most' should be a monotone increasing function of the fraction of cases where the property holds, so if that fraction goes all the way to 1, it shouldn't suddenly become false again."

William H. Stoddard said...

Matt: Your example of the winner who has 40% of the vote isn't quite idiomatic English. There are two different usages here. When Jane got 40% of the votes, Fred got 35%, and Ayesha got 25%, it's true that "Jane got the most votes," but it's not true that "Jane got most of the votes." See the difference?

lelnet said...


That's my point. It's not actually _wrong_ in that circumstance, but it's misleading.

William H. Stoddard said...

Matt: "Not idiomatic English" is in fact a form of "wrong." I'm a professional copy editor; that sort of "wrong" is a big part of what I deal with.

lelnet said...

In a context that's being copy-edited, I'd agree with you. A misleading statement in an edited publication indicates that either the editor is incompetent or the publisher is a liar.

Most human speech falls outside that context, though.

To forestall what seems to be inevitably looming, I'll say this: Let's not have the "descriptive" vs "prescriptive" battle here, OK? Or at least, not without the explicit and affirmative consent of our gracious host.

In service of avoiding said battle, I will concede right now that, from a prescriptivist viewpoint (inarguably the correct one for a copy editor to take, in his professional capacity), you are completely right.

My statements were and are based on a context where prescriptivism is, to be generous, not obviously the best approach.

Anonymous said...

It is a bit of a stretch and unkind to accuse a copy editor of incompetence because of a single error. However, if one demonstrated consistent deficiency in one's work then, perhaps, the label would more closely fit.