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?