I've often stumbled across phrases like these (perhaps not the last one) and felt that they sounded a bit awkward:

Nothing can best the sheer capacity of […]

X would best Y any day.

I best you.

I'm a layman in terms of grammar. At first, I just wanted to see if this is correct by any standard (which it appears to be). Then I came across the fact that there seems to be two factions (in lack of better a word) comprised by people specializing in descriptive and prescriptive grammar, of which I may lean more towards the latter. So, in conclusion, I seek to know if the above examples are unequivocally correct according to prescriptive grammar.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Drew, Hellion, anongoodnurse, tchrist, Erik Kowal Dec 19 '14 at 7:08

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    Funny just how many things people write off to "the Internet today". The verb best predates the noun Internet by a hundred years. – RegDwigнt Dec 18 '14 at 12:00
  • This isn't a question of grammar but of semantics (and possibly morphology). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '14 at 12:10
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    Kudos for the sheer temerity of asking for a prescriptive answer on what does indeed boil down to semantics. I wonder how many people go around with outdated dictionaries shouting that the word mouse can not be used for an electronic device because their dictionary says it's an animal. – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 12:12
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    @oerkelens I could do with this comment over on the 'What “Extravagant culture” could be used as an antonym to “Spartan”?' thread. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '14 at 13:01
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    I think the purpose of this site is in describing English language and usage accurately, not prescribing it. Descriptions of prominent or widespread prescriptions would be on topic, but I think our own prescriptions would not be. – bdsl Dec 18 '14 at 14:44

Etymonline tells us:

best (v.) Look up best at Dictionary.com "to get the better of," 1863, from best (adj.). Related: Bested; besting.

I'm afraid the authors of etymonline are describing the usage they find, and (luckily!!!) not trying to establish how people should use words, so I cannot (and out of principle, will not) appeal to your hunger for a prescriptive answer.

But as it seems, best has been used as a verb since 1863, which means it predates, as RegDwight mentioned, the internet by a hundred years. It may well be that you have only come into contact with the verb due to the internet, but I doubt the internet itself contributed to the popularity of the verb.

As to the grammatical validity, notwithstanding your love for prescriptive grammar, it does not hold water. You can find a thousand grammarians saying that verbing an adjective is wrong, they will be bested by a population that uses the language and tells them where they can put their "rules". Generations have been taught that "I am good" is not grammatical and others that the verb have is always followed by got. Again others have been told not to use the passive voice, by someone who didn't even understand what the passive voice was. A lot of wasted effort, but if you like that stuff, I'm afraid you may not find as many supporters here as you may have wished.

  • Very well said. – Erik Kowal Dec 18 '14 at 12:38
  • OED's earliest citation for best as a verb is 1839. That may well have been added within the last fortnight. – Andrew Leach Dec 18 '14 at 13:21
  • @Andrew, I don't think I've ever seen someone use the word fortnight in earnest before. I love EL&U. – Dan Bron Dec 18 '14 at 13:29
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    @DanBron 'fortnight' is very common in the UK. – Phil M Jones Dec 18 '14 at 14:00
  • @oerkelens Thanks for a well put explanation. I've narrowed my question and removed the reference to Internet (which kind of led the question the wrong way). I'm inclined to accept this answer, but wonder if you're saying that this would not be valid in terms of prescriptive grammar? (I understand if you don't want to answer that.) All in all, many great Christmas Holiday wishes from a curious Swede. – Henrik Dec 18 '14 at 23:28

Further to oerlekens and the OED saying that "best" has been used as a verb since 1863, I found it as a verb in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2 (act 2, scene 3). This was probably written in 1591.

I never saw a fellow worse bested,
Or more afraid to fight, than is the appellant,
The servant of this armourer, my lords.

Admittedly, the meaning given in the footnote ("i.e. worse conditioned") is not the meaning I would attribute to "to best", but there it is.

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