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I came across this phrase when completing an exit interview for my summer internship and I'm not sure how to interpret it. An example of the use is:

"What do you like least about school?"

I'm not sure whether the answer should be something positive, but not especially exciting, or whether it should be interpreted as "What do you dislike about school?"

Edit: Maybe I need another question for this. But this is the part that confuses me.

Why does "least" negate? There are things that I hate, things I dislike, things I dislike a bit, things I don't dislike or like, things I like a bit, things I like, and things I love. Why does "like least" pass over the neutral boundary into the negations?

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  • Remember that least is the opposite of most.
    – tchrist
    Aug 11 '15 at 3:34
  • @tchrist I get that, but why does it negate? I made an edit to the question.
    – ndenarodev
    Aug 11 '15 at 10:56
  • English has a number of phrases that invite misreading—and sometimes the only way to get past the ambiguity is to recognize the dominant idiomatic use of the phrase. For example, logically, when people say that they "don't like [something]," they are not saying that they dislike the thing; they are only denying that they like it. But idiomatically, English speakers use "don't like" to mean "dislike." The case of "like least" is less clear because it isn't consistently used in a single identifiable sense. It might mean "like but don't like much" or it might mean "dislike the most."
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 14 '15 at 1:25
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Both your question and the 'addition' are based on a misapprehension. Somebody who loves evrything about the school will still, if asked to put the various aspects in order of preference, have something in last place. Rather than asking interns to 'place a number on' each aspect (which runs into all sorts of problems), the school has asked everybody to nominate the one aspect that is at the bottom of their list.

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  • Of course they will have something in last place, but will the thing in last place be something they dislike? I'm inclined to think not.
    – ndenarodev
    Aug 11 '15 at 11:48
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    Exactly, the key is that "like least" is not the same as "dislike". "Like least" is a relative description whereas "dislike" is absolute.
    – rikkit
    Aug 11 '15 at 12:18
  • @ndenarodev: Only you have mentioned 'dislike', and I am still unsure why, when the literal meaning is clear, you insist on treating it as an extended implication. Aug 11 '15 at 15:49
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Definitely "What do you dislike?" is the intended meaning, rephrased to preempt the response "I don't dislike anything."

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Another way of asking this would be:

"What do you dislike most about school?"

'Least' does not refer to liking something a little bit in a positive way. It refers to the smallest thing that you like, the thing at the bottom of your list of all the qualities of the school.

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