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Is putting “the” before “most” in this sentence compulsory, optional, or a mistake?

Fascination with language and attention to particular regions and communities in America are the most common themes for which Coen brothers’ works are appraised.

If it is purely optional, how does its presence or lack change the tone of the sentence, in case it does?

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You do need the in this sentence. It is not optional. If you leave it out you still have a grammatical sentence but it doesn't make sense semantically. (I'm too tired to be able to explain it right now though sorry) –  hippietrail May 25 '11 at 21:04
    
No I retract what I said. Without "the" it can be parsed as the same thing but in a more old-fashioned style as Third Idiot says. –  hippietrail May 25 '11 at 21:14
    
@hippietrail, I think you really should post it as an answer, and if you don't feel like explaining this right now, perhaps you could make it community wiki. –  Dan May 25 '11 at 21:15
    
@hippietrail: I retract your retraction. Simply dropping the word the doesn't leave a valid but old-fashioned utterance. It leaves a bad sentence. It would only be valid (though somewhat archaic) if the sentence ended after the word themes. –  FumbleFingers May 25 '11 at 22:33
    
@FumbleFingers: Now I really can't decide. "Most" used to be used in a sense to mean "very" or "extremely" and I can parse the sentence this way but it's awfully clunky and does not have the usual sense for "most" if you admit it. \-: –  hippietrail May 26 '11 at 11:18
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3 Answers 3

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Short answer: "The most" is correct here.

Long answer: Most can be used as both a superlative and an intensifier. You are interested in the superlative use: of all the themes under consideration, these are the ones that are present in the greatest number. In formal usage, you would almost always want to use the definite article the with a superlative (except for possessive constructions like "John's youngest child").

In practice, the is frequently omitted but implied (e.g., "I like this one [the] best"), which complicates the rule somewhat. Nonetheless, if you follow the rule you'll almost always be right.

The other usage of most that concerns us here is as a somewhat archaic intensifier, as in Shakespeare's "murder most foul." In this case, most is being used as a synonym for very, so it doesn't take the definite article. Unless you habitually wear spats and a monocle to dinner, you'll probably want to go easy on this use of most.

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Exactly what was in my brain but refused to come out in words (-: –  hippietrail May 27 '11 at 2:22
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With the "the", you are saying that among all the common themes, these are the most common -- the top-ranked ones on the scale of common-ness. Without the "the", you are saying they're pretty common but there might be others just as common; technically "most" doesn't add anything, but functionally it adds some emphasis.

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Thanks for the explanation. –  Dan May 25 '11 at 21:08
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No this just isn't right. Without the I can only parse most in the example as an overly quirky intensifier. If most is to be a superlative then the is needed in this case if not needed in all cases where most is an intensifier. –  hippietrail May 27 '11 at 2:24
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There is actually no difference. It was common last time to say "most" without "the." I.e.:

Most admirable, Mr. Nestor

Your example could be rewritten several ways:

Fascination with language and attention to particular regions and communities in America are most common themes for which Coen brothers’ works are appraised.

or

Fascination with language and attention to particular regions and communities in America are themes most common, for which Coen brothers’ works are appraised.

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Idiot: Your third example smacks more of Victorian poetry than modern scholarly discourse. The second just sounds stilted. –  FumbleFingers May 26 '11 at 14:26
    
I know it smacks of Victorian prose, but that is just what I'm pointing at, it's still correct. –  Thursagen May 26 '11 at 21:57
    
It's not whether its fashionable or not, its whether its correct –  Thursagen May 26 '11 at 21:57
    
I think you'd have to go back to Elizabethan times for it to sound like prose, but ok –  FumbleFingers May 26 '11 at 21:59
    
Read Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days –  Thursagen May 26 '11 at 22:00
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