Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the following phrase, from the 1971 film "The Devils" by Ken Russell, what is "most"? An adjective or an adverb? And in what form, comparative or superlative?

I conjure thee, most frightful beings, by this most sacred substance.

Beings refers to demons and substance refers to the blood of Christ.

First, there's a very obvious mistake, in the first part of the phrase: should be "ye", not "thee", since it refers to several things instead of one. Isn't this correct?

Second, the usage of "most". My initial interpretation was that "most" was used to mean "above everything else": the most frightful beings of all and the most sacred substance of all. But in the way that's written one can also interpret it as "something very important" but not the most important: very frightful beings.

My intention in creating the question was to elicit different opinions, views, interpretations about how "most" was used. I cannot make up my mind and wanted to confront my own interpretation with those of others to help me decide. Thank you.

share|improve this question
1  
This appears to be an excerpt from this book. Please add the attribution to the question. –  MετάEd Jan 8 '13 at 23:01
    
You can simply edit your question to include that information. The book, by the way, is "The Devils: A Play" by John Robert Whiting. I suppose it is no cooincidence that this line ended up in a movie by the same name. –  MετάEd Jan 9 '13 at 0:06
    
The idea that a modifier ending in -st could somehow be of the comparative rather than the superlative degree is antithetical to what these little frozen inflectional pieces mean throughout English, and throughout its history. –  tchrist Jan 9 '13 at 3:23
    
This is a very beautiful sentence indeed. –  user19341 Jan 9 '13 at 5:34

1 Answer 1

First, the register is spooky and archaic, so who knows what edition of Fowler's (none, in reality) one should consult. Ye and thee are only used whimsically or to create an atmosphere; thee I believe was restricted to the singular accusative.

Second, though traditionally words modifying adjectives, or other adverbs, were also called adverbs, a more logical modern term is secondary modifier. Very and most are degree modifiers within this class, as is slightly etc; worryingly and annoyingly are secondary modifiers with more semantic content than that possessed by degree modifiers.

Most has another existance as a pronoun and yet another as a quantifier; very can be an intensifier before a noun (the very man), and worryingly and annoyingly exist, of course, as adverbs also.

share|improve this answer
1  
The usage is old, or better said, fake old. Still should we read the sentences as saying that beings and substance are frightful and sacred above all others or that they are just "big". I mean how your answer applies to this case. I need practical examples to better understand it. –  user182070 Jan 8 '13 at 23:12
    
In the case of thee vs. ye, I already consulted some reference articles on the Internet (all of them say that "thee" is singular and "ye" is plural, but I needed a confirmation from someone with more knowledge. Is hard for me to accept that someone would publish something so obviously wrong. –  user182070 Jan 8 '13 at 23:22
1  
@user182070: Please accept the easily verifiable fact that "obviously wrong" English is published everywhere all the time by native speakers, most of whom know no better. Pick up any newspaper, any magazine, any academic journal, or any printed (paper or digital) book and lo and behold there will be not only typos but thinkos and outright solecisms. Were these usages "obviously wrong", they wouldn't be published, but usage is not always about being grammatically correct, especially when the speaker/writer wants to create an atmosphere, which is one function of style. –  user21497 Jan 8 '13 at 23:33
2  
I would understand 'most' to mean 'very' here. If it's a comparative, are there other, lesser frightful beings/sacred substances with which they are being compared? Suppose I thank my host for inviting me to his house and he replies"You are most welcome" he does not ordinarily mean I am more welcome than all of his other guests (though it could mean this in a different context), he means I am very welcome. –  Mynamite Jan 8 '13 at 23:34

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.