As a math and computer-science person, I use the phrase "more optimal" quite often, such as "This algorithm gives more optimal results." However, I was recently corrected, and told that "more optimal" is incorrect grammar, since "optimal" means "best," and something can't be "more best."

I searched online, but this doesn't appear to come up very often. In this pointless flame war, someone suggests that the correct phrase is "more optimized" or "better optimized," while this page suggests using "more nearly optimal."

However, aside from the fact that "more optimized" wouldn't actually mean the same thing to a computer programmer, Google NGram suggests that neither of these alternative phrases are widely used:


So, am I using the phrase correctly, or am I (from the first link) "showing my ignorance of the basics of English grammar?"

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    Customers who liked using "more nearly optimal" or "better optimized" instead of "more optimal" also suggested killing people to prevent them from being robbed. (And anyone who states that "more optimal" is incorrect grammar instantly disqualifies himself as not knowing what grammar even is, and should start by reading a dictionary.) – RegDwigнt May 17 '13 at 22:33
  • This question is not a duplicate. – reinierpost May 17 '13 at 22:43
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    The linked question suggests that your dichotomy is false: you definitely commit a violation against what other people consider valid English, but this doesn't imply that the violation is against English grammar. The answers to the linked question suggests that the violation may instead be lexical in nature: a word that is necessarily a superlative to one speaker may not be to another. – reinierpost May 17 '13 at 22:44
  • To me, optimal is simply a synonym of best. I can't use more optimal any more than I can use more best. If you can, you are indeed violating a basic rule of English grammar, namely the rule that superlatives (such as best) cannot take comparative modifiers (such as more). – reinierpost May 17 '13 at 22:44
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    But I don't suppose you're prepared to speak of a more best algorithm or a bester algorihm so I think that accusation is out the window. Instead, I think the difference between your and my use of the word optimal is lexical in nature: somehow you don't take optimal to be a superlative. This makes me wonder what what you think it means, and whether that will make sense to me; but it doesn't make me doubt your command of the English language. – reinierpost May 17 '13 at 22:45

English grammar, in its truest sense, is not a set of rules. It's what proficient speakers say. If a community of proficient speakers have started saying more optimal then, within that speech community, more optimal is correct. Presumably, they consider optimal to be gradable.

However, in the more conservative / formal forms of English, optimal is non-gradable, and better optimized should be preferred.

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"More optimal" is grammatically correct but logically meaningless. In other words, there's no grammatical problem with the phrase, but the meaning of "optimal" is logically incompatible with the meaning of "more."

Since the intended meaning of "more optimal" is fairly easy to infer, however, it's not exactly semantically meaningless (as I at first claimed), and I think the particular usage is common enough to be considered fairly idiomatic.

There are certainly better ways of phrasing the same idea (I like the suggestion of "better optimized" from the first comment on the question) that avoid the logic-error of the original, though, so in practice I think it's best to avoid "more optimal" if possible.

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  • I'd quibble with 'meangless' because certainly it evokes -some- meaning. It is a mathematical solecism but in casual speech 'better than the best' implies that you have a new best. It is not preferred in more formal speech because of the logical problems. – Mitch May 17 '13 at 22:38
  • I disagree on two levels. Firstly, if one follows the rules of Standard English (which you appear to be doing), optimal is a non-gradable adjective, so it cannot be strengthened with "more". In other words, the error is grammatical, not semantic. Secondly, it's clear that the speech community that says "more optimal" considers "optimal" to be a gradable adjective. Therefore, as far as they are concerned, "more optimal" is perfectly correct". – Pitarou May 17 '13 at 22:40
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    Optimal has no meaning other than the one we give it. If we start using it to mean "orange cat", then that is what it means. And certainly no one can object to "more optimal" if they don't object to "semantically meaningless" in their very own writing. – RegDwigнt May 17 '13 at 22:43
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    @Pitarou Defining less full (than) (qv) as 'not as full (as)' is a semantic consideration - and semantics are usually driven by usage nowadays. That is, semantics (and popular usage) is involved in deciding whether or not a particular adjective is strictly non-gradable. (Hey - I used semantics as both a count and non-count noun there.) – Edwin Ashworth May 17 '13 at 23:01
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    @Pitarou Gradability is a grammatical concept, but the determination of whether or not an adjective is gradable is essentially semantic, since we consider an adjective non-gradable when the meaning of the adjective seems to be incompatible with gradation. Your second point is fair, though, and I think my new edit reflects that somewhat. – Kyle Strand May 18 '13 at 16:17

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