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Our rotary telephone is the least frequently used device in our house.

Ben moved most quietly as the boys walked down the darkened ally.

In the first sentence a superlative adverb is used with the (the least frequently), but in the second sentence it is used without (most quietly). Can anyone explain the difference between the two?

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  • Your first example doesn't work as written. It should be "...least frequently used device..." – herisson Nov 26 '15 at 7:29
  • "The" is not used with adverbs. – V.V. Nov 26 '15 at 7:43
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    @V.V. "So I can't say something like "Out of all the boys, Joey ran the quickest?" – herisson Nov 26 '15 at 8:14
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Our rotary telephone is the least frequently used device in our house. 
Our rotary telephone is the device that is least frequently used in our house. 

In the first sentence, it is not the superlative adverb that is used with the definitive article "the".  In both versions of this sentence above, the article is a dependent of a noun.  In the original, the participial phrase "least frequently used" is another dependent of the same noun.  Moving the participial phrase into its own clause demonstrates that the article remains tied to the word "device". 

A participial phrase like this, including the superlative adverb construction, can be found standing without a visible noun to modify.  These can be understood as elliptical constructions: 

Of all the devices in our house, the rotary phone is the least frequently used [device].

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Ben moved most quietly as the boys walked down the darkened ally does not use the definite article because "most" means "very, extremely" in this case. You are not forming a superlative here.

Note that when "most" is used before an adjective to mean "very, extremely", you use an indefinite article before it (see second example below):

most: very

used for emphasizing a particular quality

Examples:

The landscapes are most beautifully painted in oils.
We spent a most enjoyable afternoon at the races.

(Macmillan English Dictionary)

Your first example, however, is a normal superlative, so it uses "the": the smartest, the utmost, the least frequently used.

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  • Just to clarify, you can only use an indefinite article before "more" or "most" when a noun follows the adjective. So we say "The afternoon we spent at the races was most enjoyable." – herisson Nov 26 '15 at 8:07
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In this sense, "most quietly" means with the most quietness possible.

In this case, though, I think the usage is ambiguous. It could also be interpreted to mean that Ben moved more quietly than the other boys—that he was the most quiet among them.

It also seems odd to explain the circumstances (walking down the alley) after describing Ben's actions.

So instead, I'd say:

As the boys made their way through the darkened alley, Ben was careful to move quietly.

BTW, ally (no E) means someone who cooperates with you or works with you toward a common goal.

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