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The sentence I am trying to construct will be read with the assumption that finding that a bug exists in unfortunate. This is what I want to say, paraphrased:

We found a bug in the code. At the least, it causes this negative effect, but it might cause others.

My question is on the use of "at the least." The reason I am questioning this is because I have not heard this phrase very much. The two other similar phrases I have heard do not seem to convey the idea in the same way.

We found a bug in the code. At least, it causes this negative effect, but it might cause others.

When the reader gets past "at least," he or she will be in the mindset that a negative thing has happened (the bug was found), but there is a bright side. Generally, after a negative statement, "at least" is used to "look on the bright side" and mention a positive aspect of the situation. However, this is not what I am doing, so the sentence will read weirdly.

We found a bug in the code. At the very least, it causes this negative effect, but it might cause others.

Reflecting on the way that I am familiar with this phrase, I feel that, when the reader gets past "at the very least," he or she will think that I am about to suggest the least that we should do to fix the problem, but that is not what I am doing, so the sentence will read weirdly. Also, personally, I think this phrase is over-used and is a bit sensationalist with the "very" in there.

For those reasons, I feel "at the least" is the best option. However, I am still stuck on the fact that it is an uncommon phrase. This makes me hesitant to use it and makes me wonder whether it (or even "at the very least") is grammatically correct. Is this grammatically correct? If so, does it read so strangely that it rivals the magnitude to which the others read strangely?

I would appreciate most an answer concerning the phrase "at the least," but alternative ways to phrase the sentence would be helpful as well. Also, this is my first post, so any suggestions on my posting behavior/style would be helpful.

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    Maybe "at best" meaning "in the best case scenario"? "We found a bug in the code. At best, it causes this effect. At worst, it could cause others as well." – Roger Feb 7 '14 at 16:39
  • @Roger I really don't want to comment on how anyone feels about the situation. I'm really just trying to talk about quantity. I am just thinking about how the reader will feel because "at least" is commonly used to comment on the reader's or writer's feelings on the situation. Thanks for the suggestion, though! – Adonneus Feb 7 '14 at 16:59
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I'd have expected your first option to be far less common than the other two, but a couple of Google Ngrams show that this view is probably unwarranted. Only 'at least' seems to be commonly used, though the other two are not unknown. I'm surprised; I'm quite familiar with 'at the very least' as a pragmatic evaluator.

At least (as a pragmatic marker – mitigating), as you say, has a different meaning, unwanted here.

I'd avoid at the least as sounding unnatural, though there's no grammatical reason why at the very least should be correct and at the least not so.

You could go with at the very least, which sounds a little over the top to me. I'd rephrase to 'It causes at least one problem: ...; it might also cause others.' This usage of 'at least' is as a quantifier rather than a pragmatic marker.

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  • I especially agree with your point in your third paragraph; I was wondering if at the very least were only acceptable because it had become a idiom. Thanks for your answer! – Adonneus Feb 7 '14 at 17:06
  • Surely all these constructions (at least, at most, at worst, at best / at latest) are idioms. They are snowclones because quite a few examples having the same structure exist. They are idiosyncratic because similar constructs are not used (at highest / youngest / widest / fastest / nearest / furthest / most sensible / northernmost ...). – Edwin Ashworth Feb 7 '14 at 22:29
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I agree with Edwin Ashworth's analysis of the offered phrases.

An alternative introduction could be Minimally, ...

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I'd suggest "at minimum" in this case. It's the sense you're trying to convey: the smallest extent of this bug.

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