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I've recently come across a novel called A most wanted man, after which being curious I found a TV episode called A most unusual camera.

Could someone shed some light on how to use "a most" and whether it has anything to do with "the most"?

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5 Answers 5

"Most" in this context means "very." As in "a very wanted man." It functions as a "superlative."

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I think it's a somewhat dated/quaint usage. There's Paul Simon's 1965 song A Most Peculiar Man, and John le Carré's spy novel mentioned by OP. But the best advice to anyone unfamiliar with the form is probably just to read most as very, and avoid actually using it at all. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '12 at 16:08
I agree that the usage is dated; it sounds precious or pompous in a modern context. –  itsbruce Oct 8 '12 at 17:30
+1. It can also mean "almost", which is also somewhat dated/quaint. –  ruakh Oct 8 '12 at 17:33
@ruakh - Yes, the distinction between "almost" and "very" is easily made from the context, if one is a native English speaker, but could certainly be ambiguous to someone who is less familiar with the language. –  Hot Licks Jul 20 at 12:53

This is a special kind of absolute superlative. The OED gives as its sense 2 of most adv. the following:

As an intensive superlative qualifying adjs. and advs.: In the greatest possible degree.
For the ceremonial titles, Most Christian, Most Honourable, Most Noble, Most Reverend, etc., see those adjs.

I don’t think it gets used all that very much anymore. One of the examples is:

1710 Hearne Collect. (O.H.S.) II. 351 ― A most vile, stinking Whigg.

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I agree it's not used all that much any more. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '12 at 16:18

Most can be used as 'very'... so 'a most' means 'a very'......

adv. Superlative of much; (intensifier): very. e.g. a most impressive piece of writing. (TFD/AHDEL)

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This answer has already been given. –  choster Apr 7 at 20:13

Generally the definite Article 'the' is placed before any superlative. But there is an exception to this rule. This special use of 'superlative' is called 'absolute superlative' or 'superlative of eminence'.

Positive, comparative, and superlative degrees are used for comparison. But 'absolute superlative' or 'superlative of eminence', are used to express a very great degree of a quality, with no idea of comparison.


  1. A most beautiful sight...
  2. A most interesting book...
  3. He met me in a politest manner.
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To me #3 sounds bogus. It may technically be "legal", but it doesn't go down smoothly at all. –  Hot Licks Apr 7 at 20:52

The question is misleading. Instead of asking for the meaning of "A most", it would be better to ask for the meaning of "most wanted":

A most wanted man

is to be read:

A [most wanted] man

and turns out to be:

A man who is most wanted
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I don't think I agree, but supposing for the sake of argument that you're right . . . what is the meaning of "most wanted"? This answer, as written, seems incomplete. –  ruakh Jul 20 at 17:39

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