Another teacher came to me with a potential test question. In the text, she uses "optimum" to refer to the fastest route for a lifeguard to save a swimmer. I forget the exact wording.

"The optimum, in order to reach the swimmer quickly..."

I told her I didn't think this was a correct usage of optimum but she disagreed. Any thoughts?


It's not uncommon to use adjectives like this; I'm not sure it turns the adjective into a noun. Consider:

Someone sent you three packages. The largest feels like it is empty.

  • I agree with this answer. I think the problem with OP is the short stop between the optimum and the next word: normally there would be a noun there (the optimum course) but it got left out and we're left with an awkward sentence – Raestloz Sep 30 '14 at 4:44

This doesn't seem right to me, though there might be some words you could put in place of the ellipsis that would allow a valid reading. For example:

The optimum course is down by the pier whereas swimming out through the breakers is going to be much slower. The optimum, in order to reach the swimmer quickly, is the best way to go.

Even this is a little awkward. So the answer is "it depends on the context."


She is confusing optimum (the best) with the shortest distance, the route most easily traversed, or the most efficient approach. Her question could be better put, What is the quickest way to reach the swimmer? It is possible that the shortest distance is a route infested with alligators, so that would not be the optimum way.

  • 1
    I think you are wrong about teacher 2 confusing the optimal route with the conditions you mention. The teacher might have one of those conditions in mind as an optimality criterion. However, the question is not about what is optimal but instead about correct English usage of optimum. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 30 '14 at 4:11
  • "Optimum" is correct as far as grammar, but it adds nothing to the idea of reaching the swimmer quickly. – Theresa Sep 30 '14 at 6:08
  • "Optimum" always is with respect to a particular measure and often in a specific context, something that is either explicitly stated or implied. For example, the optimum arrangement of books in a library might be either optimum for finding an arbitrary choice, which might be alphabetically, or optimum for the most frequently used which might be a pile, where you put the last used book on top. – Fraser Orr Sep 30 '14 at 17:12

In mathematics, optimum also has a meaning of optimal solution , although I'm fairly certain it doesn't work without the preceding "local" or "global". As pointed out in the comments, the qualifier is not necessary.

Local optimum

Global optimum

  • 1
    The optimum would imply the global optimum. – 200_success Sep 30 '14 at 14:44
  • As implied by previous comment, in mathematics optimum when unqualified refers to a global optimum. In general, 97% of its uses are bare. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 30 '14 at 14:55

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