I did the best I could.

The sentence above can be rephrased:

  • I did the best that I could.

In these two examples (that) I could is a relative clause. However, I am not sure whether it is modifying best or the best or an ellipted element. What exactly is this clause modifying?

Secondly, what type of phrase is the best here and what type of word is best?

  • 1
    Nifty question! --whole lotta shakin goin on there. My stab: could is a 'coded' could do. Best might be taken as an adverb, the superlative grade of well; but here I think it's an adjective so-to-speak 'fused' with its (dummy( head and thus recategorized as a noun, required because E do in its 'pro-verbal' sense requires an object, even if that's a dummy. And the is elicited/licensed (you pays your money and you takes your choice) by the restrictive relative clause. May 31 '16 at 15:53
  • @StoneyB Oh, I so wish I understood all of that! May 31 '16 at 19:46
  • the best is a fused head noun phrase. And hence the relative clause is simply modifying a NP. Jun 1 '16 at 1:56
  • @Man_From_India So, if the best is an NP here, where is the corresponding gap in the relative clause? Hmmm Jun 3 '16 at 18:17
  • @Araucaria hmmm I see it this way - I did [the best] (that) I could (do) ____ In the gap it has to be the best as in I could do the best. Jun 3 '16 at 18:38

This doesn't answer OP's question, but it addresses the confusion another answerer here has.

He said in his answer "best is a noun in I did the best I could, but an adjective in I did the best thing I could".

I strongly oppose that conclusion. In my opinion best is an adjective both in I did the best I could and in I did the best thing I could.

Here are the reasons -

  • A noun can't be modified by an adverb (A noun phrase can, but we are talking about only noun not the noun phrase). An adjective, however, can be pre-modified by an adverb like very.

This time they cared enough to serve the very poor.

See in the sentence above poor, though, seems like a noun. But it's actually not. How poor? very. The adverb very pre-modifies an adjective. So poor is not a noun.

She is the most beautiful of them.

Here beautiful is not a noun. most beautiful is the superlative form of the adjective beautiful.

Similarly, in OP's quoted sentence best is an adjective.


I did the best (that) I could (do).

The mention of do here is optional. Similarly optional is the mention of relativizer in the relative construction - (that) I could (do).

The antecedent here is the noun phrase (NP) - the best.

Now it's a different type of noun phrase where the head of the noun phrase is fused with its internal modifiers. Such NPs are called Fused-head NP.

I did [the best] [(that) I could (do) ___].

  • 3
    Now, I understand why you are confused and mistaken. 1. The word very could function as an adjective. Just because a word could be modified by "very" doesn't mean the following word is an adjective. In "that's the very point I want to make", point is not an adjective. 2. Whether an adverb can modify a noun or noun phrase is controversial. I don't want to get into that. However, I don't think it has anything to do with classifying best as a noun or adjective.
    – user140086
    Jun 4 '16 at 16:25
  • 1
    @Rathony you are actually right. I overlooked it completely. That very in my quoted sentences are all adjectives. Let me think of it a little more. Jun 4 '16 at 16:37
  • Either you or the OP or both might want to take a look at my new question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/446569/…
    – JK2
    May 22 '18 at 2:04

A few omissions in the sentence:

I did the best (thing or things) (that) I could (do).

  1. "Thing" is omitted because it is not necessary. The noun best itself can mean "the best thing". Therefore, we could say the relative clause is modifying its antecedent the best.

  2. If you don't omit the noun thing (s), "best" will be the superlative form of the adjective good. Otherwise, "the best" is a noun phrase functioning both as an object of the transitive verb to do and an antecedent of the relative clause.

  • Good answer but it's worth pointing out that "the best" could mean "the best things" as well as "the best thing" in this context. May 31 '16 at 16:00
  • @MaxWilliams I stand corrected. Are you happy with the edit?
    – user140086
    May 31 '16 at 16:02
  • If it could be "things" understood, then why couldn't we say in the passive, *"The best I could do were done."?
    – Greg Lee
    May 31 '16 at 20:10
  • "I did the best [thing[s]] [that] I could [do] ____."
    – AmI
    May 31 '16 at 22:01
  • 1
    @Man_From_India I've been with you all the way. But best is still an adjective/adverb, every which way you look at it. "The best" might be a noun phrase, but "best" isn't a noun! Jun 4 '16 at 1:57

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