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“Maximum” vs. “maximal”

Having altered the original text as little as possible, what is the correct way to name the changes? Is it minimum changes or minimal changes?

Based on Google search results, I would prefer to use minimal:

  • "minimal changes" — 800k hits
  • "minimum changes" — 90k hits

What is more appropriate? Is there any better-suited word or phrase for this?

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marked as duplicate by MετάEd, Mitch, Zairja, waiwai933 Oct 27 '12 at 5:34

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Grammar can give us no categorical answer to this. It depends on context. Both the phrases are correct and have their uses in appropriate contexts. One is not better or more correct than the other.

From a semantic point of view, though, minimal changes is far more common. COCA shows just two results for minimum changes vs. at least 23 for minimal changes:

Consent will decrease and the bargain become unstable when the definition of the minimum changes or when the capacity exists to achieve better terms. Chicago Sun-Times

The minimum changes should be the following: Social Research

In both these cases, the words are interpreted independently and not as a phrasal noun as the OP seems to imply in the question, as in:

...with the focus centered on the deletion of any explicit content while making minimal changes to the artistic expression. Consumers Research Magazine

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I'd use minimum in "The minimum number of changes", that is I had to make at least 10 changes, and that's all I made.

Using minimal in "I made minimal changes" suggests that you made as few changes as possible and that they were not major changes in content, style, syntax, grammar, word choice, etc.

An alternative is to say "I made as few changes as possible, and where I did make changes, I changed as little as possible [because I wanted to preserve the author's {voice/style} and did not want to alter the content]". The words in the square brackets are optional.

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‘The Cambridge Grammar of English Usage’ suggests that minimal is a little more literary in style, and that it ‘often has a negative cutting edge to it, which minimum as an adjective does not.’

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There was a similar contention that any has a negativity that some doesn't. In formal writing, should we really consider these subtleties? I'm afraid most writing will have to be re-read and re-interpreted in new light? – Kris Oct 27 '12 at 4:49

Whether you use minimum or minimal depends on what you are trying to say.

minimum, n. and adj.

B. adj. (chiefly attrib.).

  • [The noun used chiefly appositively.] That is a minimum; of or relating to a minimum; that is the least or lowest possible, usual, attainable, allowable, etc.

Compare with:

minimal, adj.

  • Relating to or constituting a minimum; of a minimum amount, quantity, or degree. More generally: extremely small; very slight, negligible; constituting a bare minimum, only just adequate.

What this means in the real world is that minimum is the smallest amount, and as such usually takes a definite article - "we made the minimum change" - and is often part of a noun phrase. Minimal is small, negligable, sort of minimum-ish, and as such takes an indefinite or zero article - "we made a minimal change/minimal changes".

A nice example (or at least it works for me...) is residue in a wine bottle.

There was the minimum residue in the wine bottle ~ there could not be any less residue, which would suggest none at all

There was minimal residue in the wine bottle ~ there was so little residue, less than other bottle of wine, that it barely mattered at all.

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Minimum (and maximum) imply a measurable or countable quantity. "Minimum changes" is the fewest possible. It would apply in ancient times (such as the 1970s) when amending a document meant resetting lines of type and the cost was per line altered.

On the other hand, you might make dozens or even hundreds of technical changes while having little or no impact on the meaning or tone of the text, which are qualities not quantities. The original author would not realise that all the work had been done because they were "minimal changes".

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1970s is ancient? You really know how to make a chap feel past his prime! – Andrew Leach Oct 26 '12 at 6:02

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