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As in “It travels faster than sound at least.”

After considering the alternative at the very least, I'm thinking at is a preposition, and least is — well, stumping me. Can we have it be as normal, a superlative adjective simply standing in place of the noun phrase a preposition calls for? Or is it somehow a noun, or do prepositions not always require noun phrases, or do I just need to count *at least— as two words that somehow form an adverb?

The last option would be difficult, as I'm doing some part-of-speech tagging for a corpus I'm building. CLAWS web service auto-tags this phrase as at_AV0 least_AV0, which would indicate both words are adverbs, but that seems very wrong, unless that's what they mean by it. But then I don't know how to distinguish tags indicating “these two words are one adverb” from “these are two adverbs”.

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There should be a comma before this use of at least, in order to indicate the specific intonation. BTW, it's a quantifier, a negative superlative quantifier, and its scope is determined by context. –  John Lawler Mar 15 '13 at 3:23
    
@JohnLawler: As far as commas go, I'm just using the form of the original text. The NSQ stuff makes sense, but would that mean that the quantifier was postposed from at least faster than sound? Should I make a new question about this? –  Melodic Mar 15 '13 at 4:03
    
So should I just use xml tagging and make at least a single token? –  Melodic Mar 15 '13 at 4:04
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You can say it's postposed if you like, but it's an adverbial quanifier idiom and I'd take it as a unit. It's simpler than trying to make sense of a dead parse. –  John Lawler Mar 15 '13 at 4:23

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In this instance, "least" is a noun meaning "smallest, lowest, or minimal amount."

Rephrasing the original sentence to demonstrate this meaning gives us: "Its lowest speed is faster than sound." Rephrasing Fumble Fingers's example sentence gives us: "A ton is its lowest possible weight," or, "The smallest weight it could have is a ton."

The rephrasing also helps clarify a more subtle point about the original sentence in question here. "At least" is taken as definitive, precise, and indicative of a specific point in a scale of measurement. So if the scale of measurement is speed, we might say "at least 700 miles per hour," or "at least the speed of sound." We would not usually say, "at least faster than the speed of sound," just as we would not usually say, "at least more than 700 miles per hour." "Faster" and "more than" are not defined points in the scale of measurement, and so they eradicate the functional bottom limit implied by "least." If something moves "at least faster than sound," its minimal speed can be any speed whatsoever as long as it is faster than the speed of sound.

One could argue that it is possible and reasonable to say "at least faster than sound," or in other words, "its slowest speed is nevertheless faster than the speed of sound." And I can't argue that this phrasing is impossible or non-reasonable. What I can argue, however, is that this phrasing is slightly awkward, and inconsistent with the well-accepted and useful intended meaning of "least." I would then say it is preferred for precision, effectiveness, and clarity of expression to use a single, specific point in a scale of measurement when you are referring to "the least."

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I completely agree with your analysis of why OP's example is at the very least "sub-optimal". –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '13 at 4:22
    
@FumbleFingers Thanks, FF. I like your answer as well. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 15 '13 at 4:47
    
(pssst! - you're supposed to vote on ELU! :) –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '13 at 4:53
    
@FumbleFingers You're right! And so I now have done so. :) –  John M. Landsberg Mar 16 '13 at 3:29
    
Still doesn't help me really understand how to tag it, but I suppose John Lawler helped me figure that out already, and your answer helped me better understand what was going on grammatically. Thanks! –  Melodic Mar 16 '13 at 3:29

I'd say at least is a quantifier - specifically, a proportional quantifier. That's what it's called in this paper, which also uses the term "cardinal quantifiers" when discussing at least n, at most n.

And as John Lawler comments (and he should know!) it could also be called a negative superlative quantifier. It's partly a matter of what terminological framework you're working in.

I suppose if we take a simpler case, such as "It weighs at least a ton", you could say the term functions as an "adjective" modifying ton, if that's the sort of terminology you want to use. I doubt it's worth trying to subdivide the component words into categories - you'd probably end up having to say least is an adjective, which might get messy.

Of course, you could say it adverbially modifies weighs in my example, and travels in OP's.

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Found this answer more interesting and entertaining (loving the articles), but Landsbergs answer helped me understand what was going on a bit better. –  Melodic Mar 16 '13 at 3:27

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