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One frequently hears something being described as one of the most important XXX or one of the best XXX. Isn't most important or best (any superlative really) unique by definition? How can something be one of a set of most important things?

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closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, J.R., Mahnax, tchrist, coleopterist Sep 1 '12 at 1:17

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Not the most important thing, but still very important. –  American Luke Aug 24 '12 at 15:08
    
Wouldn't "one of the more important" be a better phrase in that case? –  Adnan Aug 24 '12 at 15:09
    
As the superlative show more importance than the comparative, it just depends which fits better in context. Using "most" in this case is perfectly fine. –  American Luke Aug 24 '12 at 15:12
    
Fair enough.. Thanks.. It has always made me a bit uncomfortable reading phrases like those :) It hurts my OCD of being precise and unambiguous in my phrasing. Cheers! –  Adnan Aug 24 '12 at 15:15
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English isn't mathematics. You can't apply set theory to it. "This is one of the best books I've ever read," simply puts the referenced book into a range at the top of the speaker's rating system. This may include three or five or ten or a hundred books. But they're all in that top tier, however it may be defined. –  Robusto Aug 24 '12 at 15:30
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Most important can be used to describe multiple objects simultaneously. Imagine a set of objects being classified into groups such that objects of similar (not necessarily identical) level of importance are placed in the same group. The group that is more important than all the others will then be the most important group.

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To be more specific: all items in the group are of more importance than any outside the group. –  Jon Hulka Aug 24 '12 at 16:26
    
I like the "think of the whole group as most whatever rather than the individual items" argument. It preserves the "there should only be one 'most' anything" notion nicely. Thanks! –  Adnan Aug 24 '12 at 17:25
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English isn't mathematics. You can't apply set theory to it.

This is one of the best books I've ever read

simply puts the referenced book into a range at the top of the speaker's rating system. This may include three or five or ten or a hundred books. But they're all in that top tier, however it may be defined.

Those who still get hinky about using best in this general sense ought to get over it. The world is full of lists of "The Ten Best Films of All Time," "The Best Techniques for Winning at Scrabble" and the like. When "best" refers to multiple items, assume a range, not a discrete entity.

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For the sake of the funding prospects of those poor souls who are trying to (mathematically) understand natural language, I must point out that there isn't any problem describing this ranking structure mathematically. It is simply a sequence of equivalence relations of increasing refinement (so E_i is a subrelation of E_j for i<j), where the equivalence classes are ordered. You might not want to use classical set theory, but that is a rather separate (more general) issue. –  Rachel Aug 24 '12 at 18:26
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Just to clarify a bit--because I think this is relevant to the OP's points--the issue, I think, is not that English speakers are imprecise or horribly confused; it's that they're lazy, a.k.a., efficient. We reuse words to mean different things and don't clarify by explicitly using subscripts or such. We use other things instead: context, (shared) world knowledge, and powerful inference systems. So we can say "the best of the best" and still make sense as long as you don't throw away all of the extra stuff that we use to make sense of utterances. –  Rachel Aug 24 '12 at 18:37
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