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I have checked numerous examples where "At worst" is used in the future context.

At worst, we will go to jail.

At worst, teacher will expel us.

Can we use "At worst" in the past context?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

You didn't specify beyond the combination of the two words "at worst."

There's another idiomatic expression that goes: "...at best and...at worst." I suppose this counts in your question.

With the particular structure above, I can make sentences in all sorts of Tenses.

Present: "Entrepreneurs are difficult at best and abrasive at worst."

Past: The entrepreneurs (at the conference) WERE difficult at best and abrasive at worst.

Future: The entrepreneurs (at the future conference) WILL BE difficult at best and abrasive at worst.

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This is Interesting. – Jbean Jun 28 '12 at 14:18
Good point -- those are valid examples with past and present. It works when you broaden from a single example to a range. – Jay Jun 28 '12 at 16:06
Thanks for that, @Jay – Cool Elf Jun 28 '12 at 16:43

The phrase "at worst" indicates the least desirable of several possible outcomes. If the outcome is actually known, it's difficult to see how it would make sense.

You don't use this idiom to say that that the worst possible thing actually did happen. Like, if someone really did go to jail, you don't say, "At worst, he went to jail." That's just not how the phrase is used.

It could be used in a past conditional, like, "He was lucky to get away with just a bruise. At worst, he could have broken his arm."

I'm not sure what it would mean to use in a simple past tense. "At worst, he was sent to jail." What would that mean? Was he sent to jail or not?

So other than a future or a past conditional, I don't see where it would apply.


After seeing Cool Elf's answer and GEdgar's comment on his own answer, I concede there is another case that I didn't think of when giving my answer above. People DO use "at best/at worst" to describe past events when it is a question of how you categorize it, rather than what happenned.

That is, you can use the future to describe possible outcomes:

"If I am caught speeding, at worst I will get a small fine."

It wouldn't make sense to describe known past events in terms of possible outcomes:

"When I was caught speeding yesterday, at worst I had to pay a small fine." That wouldn't make sense. You either had to pay a fine or you didn't.

But it DOES make sense if you are describing ways to categorize the outcome:

"When I was caught speeding yesterday, I had to pay a fine. At best you could say I got away with just a small fine; at worst you could call it a bad mark on my driving record." As the classification is debateable, it's meaningful to apply it to a past event. Even though we know what happenned, you could take different views of its significance.

It can also be used in the past tense when describing a broad class of people or things or events and categorizing some range of an attribute of this class.

"Mondays are at best boring, and at worst depressing."

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Last week the Murphy Gang was tried for their string of bank jobs. The sentences were at best 18 months in prison and and at worst 5 years.

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Hmm, but I've never heard anyone actually use those phrases that way. We might say, "The best sentence was 18 months and the worst was 5 years." (Though this is a bad example: when talking about the sentence given a criminal, I doubt we'd use "best" and "worst" unless we were friends of the gang members.) I can type any combination of characters into a post, but that doesn't mean that real people use the words that way in real life. – Jay Jun 28 '12 at 16:03
Here is an example from the Micmillan Dictionary: " The Senator's reaction was at best ineffective and at worst irresponsible." macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/worst_6 – GEdgar Jun 28 '12 at 18:22

Serial killer Gary Ridgway (Green River killer) is believed to have killed at least 71 women, at worst he may have murdered several times as many.

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