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In sentences such as the following, how is most best understood?

1) Most children do not like cauliflower.

2) Most of the balls in the bucket are red.

I suppose there are three or more possible interpretations for most in these sentences.

A) a plurality (at least one more than any other alternative)

B) a majority (more than half, even if barely more)

C) a comfortable majority (well more than half)

For sentence 1, interpretations A and B would be equivalent since there are only two alternatives.

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This is general reference. A trip to the dictionary will tell you that most means the majority of; nearly all of. –  Robusto Jan 25 '12 at 13:56
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@Robusto: The possible meanings for "most" are in the question; the question is about how it is actually used and interpreted, I think it's fair. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 25 '12 at 14:04
    
Which is it? "Nearly all of" suggests alternative C) or stronger. "The majority of" is alternative B). Are you saying that there is unresolvable ambiguity in these sentences? (I did make a trip to the dictionary prior to asking this question.) –  DRY Jan 25 '12 at 14:07
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@DRY: you've covered all the possibilities, so it is ambiguous. The plurality option, though not in the dictionary definition, is possible, but can be considered misleading ('Most children dislike cauliflower' might be interpreted as 'Over all vegetables, cauliflower gets the most down votes'). So which interpretation is right? depends on context and then sometimes ambiguous. –  Mitch Jan 25 '12 at 14:32
    
@DRY The dictionary reports the various senses of most. You are not asking, is the dictionary wrong? Your question boils down to what does most mean in these particular contexts? Without those contexts, experts have no better chance of knowing the right answer than you do. If you were to supply those contexts, the question will still be too narrow to be generally useful. –  MετάEd Jan 25 '12 at 15:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

This topic has been covered at Language Log (see here and here). In summary, people tend to use "most" to mean anything over 50%; some people feel it should only be used in sense C (a comfortable majority), but it is also used in sense A (a plurality). The context might make it clear which meaning is intended, or else it might simply be ambiguous.

Example:

The party with the most seats in the parliament gets to form the government

Here "most" means "a plurality".

Most dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste.

Here it is ambiguous about whether there is a bare majority or a comfortable majority.

From the 2nd Language Log link:

I searched on Google for the pattern "most * percent", and picked out of the first 150 hits all the examples like these:

most Pakistanis (64 percent) believe it is important to improve relations with their powerful ally Most (72.4 percent) said that they would consider dating someone of a different race. Most Americans (51.4 percent) will live in poverty at some point before age 65.

There were 72 numbers in my list, and the histogram of 69 of them looked like this: enter image description here You might believe that this is a bimodal distribution, with one mode just above 60% and another just above 80% — though if you divide things up into ten-percent bins, the stretch from 60 to 90 flattens out: enter image description here In any event, it's pretty clear that the whole range from 50.1 to 99.9 is getting some action.

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Thanks for the two links (see also the "Most bibliography" at the bottom of the second post). I had not come across that discussion previously, but it provided just the sort of information I was seeking. As you indicate, the takeaway is that the intended meaning is often ambiguous. The extent of evident disagreement was also eye-opeining to me. –  DRY Jan 26 '12 at 12:56
    
Related to the Google search exercise in the 2nd link, Stephanie Solt has a recent paper giving somewhat different results. Using corpus data it shows a clear distributional distinction between how "more than half" is used and how "most" is used. zas.gwz-berlin.de/fileadmin/mitarbeiter/solt/Most_Paper.pdf –  DRY Jan 26 '12 at 13:52
    
@DRY: That is a very interesting paper. It seems to suggest that a good default interpretation for "most" is "comfortable majority". But the Language Log data shows that you can't count on that interpretation being correct all the time (only most of the time? :) ) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 26 '12 at 17:49

In your sentences, most definitely means "more than half":

Most of the votes were for the Democrats.

... means Democrats got more than 50% of the votes.

However, in the slightly different sentence:

The Democrats got the most votes.

... this merely means that the Democrats received more votes than any other party.

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I believe if you say "most of", people would generally understand that to mean at least a majority. But without an "of" it could mean a plurality.

"We asked children what vegetables they disliked, and suggested broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. ...

"Most of the children chose cauliflower." Probably means a majority.

"Cauliflower was chosen the most." Could be just a plurality.

But wow, it's pretty vague. It might be very hard to say without a complete context, and even then could be ambiguous.

Note "most" can also be used in a subjective sense. "I hate cauliflower the most." I probably can't attach attach a number to it, it's certainly not a percentage of some total, but I hate it more than I hate broccoli or spinach.

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