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It was the best of times…

How to understanding this usage without using "the" (i.e. instead of "the best of the times")?

How can we apply the same usage in everyday conversation? E.g. should we say "it is the best of mankind" or "it is the best of the mankind"?

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Note that the quote is "It was the best of times..." which could change the question. Although it won't change Barrie's answer. –  Andrew Leach Nov 11 '12 at 18:08
    
I think this Too Localised. Saying "This is the best of times" is a bit "quaint", and would normally only be done with a nod to the Dickens usage anyway. Variations such as "This is the best of mankind" are also at least "quirky", and probably best avoided by non-native speakers. –  FumbleFingers Nov 11 '12 at 18:12
    
@AndrewLeach Thank you. Edited question accordingly. –  michaeleng Nov 11 '12 at 18:12
    
@FumbleFingers What would be a more acceptable way to say this among native speakers? –  michaeleng Nov 11 '12 at 18:16
    
@michaeleng: I'm not sure what exactly what "it" you're intending to praise. But I think usually "mankind" means people, and I'm guessing your "it" is some abstract concept (such as altruism). I'd be likely to say "[Some group of people] represent the best of mankind, as against "[Some human quality] represents/is the best of humanity". But these are very subjective issues, probably better raised on writers.se –  FumbleFingers Nov 11 '12 at 18:40
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2 Answers

Mankind is one of the few words that can almost never be preceded by either a definite or indefinite article.

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Thanks. How to understand this with the word time? –  michaeleng Nov 11 '12 at 18:08
    
Time can be both countable and uncountable. Mankind, on the whole, can’t. –  Barrie England Nov 11 '12 at 18:51
    
The same preclusion of articles be they indefinite or definite also seems to the other th‑ “definitiveness” markers, the demonstratives this/these, that/those and possibly to determiners in general. In this regard, it seems to act more like a proper noun that is the name of a particular person, which also resist such, albeit not quite so strongly as does mankind. Is there perhaps a whole set/class of such determiner-resistant nouns, ones which you also, for the most part, cannot use the possessive adjectives on either? –  tchrist Nov 11 '12 at 19:29
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“This is the best of [Ø] X” means “The best of all X”; the best of the X” means “The best of [some specific subset] of X”.

So “the best of times” here means “the best of all conceivable times”. If Dickens had said “It was the best of the times” it would imply some such qualification as “It was the best of the times anyone living had experienced.”

This phrase needs to conclude on a plural rather than a collective. “Men”, “cows”, “chickens”, “suitcases” all work, but “The best of humankind”, “the best of cattle”, “the best of poultry”, “the best of luggage” are all very odd. These collectives semantically reject partitioning into individual members, so there can be no “best” of them.

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Pace Pope & Cowley, I’ve always seen humankind as more of a post-modern PC-minded aversion to the perfectly serviceable mankind than a reasonable word with an historic and historical heritage of its own. Apparently I am not alone. –  tchrist Nov 11 '12 at 19:22
    
@tchrist Well, Shakespeare was ahead of his time: milk of human()kindness. See your OED. But "He is the best of mankind" doesn't work for me; perhaps "He is the best mankind can show ..." –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 19:33
    
Human kindness is simply about being humane and kind. It is mentioned in these OED2 entries: Calvinisticate, exuberate, humanly, kindred, manliness, milk, milk-and-water, pinta, sillabub, skim-milk. Seems positively galactic to me. In contrast, humankind is to be found under all of disinterestedness, fontal, humankind, mew, proluse, rampant, shiverer, viperous. “He is the best that humanity has to offer” speaks of his humane condition and his culture, whereas “He is the best that humankind has to offer” seems instead to speak of his species. At least, for me; YMMV. –  tchrist Nov 11 '12 at 19:42
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@tchrist Sh Crit has recognized since I was young that Lady M's "human kindness" bears a double sense. Humankind was spelled in Sh's day as two words. OED 1 s.v. humankind. And Shakespeare puns on kind in Ham: "Something less than kin, and more than kind." –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 19:56
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