Sometimes “most” is used as an intensifier rather than a superlative:

“Lucy expressed herself most eloquently.”

“The employees work most efficiently.”

There are other degree adverbs that do this, like “quite” and “rather”:

“Tom paints quite beautifully.”

“They got there rather quickly.”

However, to my mind, the latter examples can take on the meaning of both “very” and “somewhat” depending on the context or emphasis, while “most” only takes on the meaning of “very”. “Most” is not working as a superlative or comparing the extent of Lucy’s eloquence to any other type of eloquence or the efficiency of the employees to that of anyone else's employees (as in much/more/most); it is simply adding emphasis. I understand that what may be setting “most” apart from the others could, then, just be the nature of the word's link to forming superlatives, which means we find it difficult accept it with the sense of “somewhat”. My question is whether there is an actual grammatical difference between these forms, or if it really is just its association with forming superlatives that limits its meaning? And if there is a grammatical difference, are there other examples of this?

Also, as far as my personal knowledge of English usage goes, using “most” in this way is a little outdated and sounds upper-class, while the latter two aren’t and don’t (at least definitely not to the same extent). All three can serve the same function, so is there a historical or linguistic reason for why “quite” and “rather” used in this way are still contemporary and “more” isn't?

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    "My question is whether there is an actual grammatical difference between these forms"--but more forms than two seem to have been introduced, so of which two are you asking this? Also, criteria and consequence for "actual grammatical difference" are far from obvious. Regarding the usage of "most" as an intensifier without obvious objects of comparison, that function is routine for superlatives in many languages. As for class and date associations, I seem to remember "most excellent" as a favored collocation in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or Wayne's World or possibly both. – Brian Donovan Nov 12 '17 at 14:05
  • I'm asking specifically about the use of "most" solely as an intensifier. I understand that superlatives work without clear objects of comparison, but it seems to me that, while none of the examples I gave of adverbs necessarily require a point of comparison, "most" stands out having a single possible interpretation ("very") while the others can also mean "somewhat". I suppose what I was trying to get at is why this one adverb, seemingly taking on the exact same function (to intensify) as others ("quite", "rather"), doesn't have the same range of meaning. Thanks very much for your comment. – Zumón Nov 12 '17 at 17:50
  • Zumón, this is almost entirely a question of opinion. Please remember quite literally means exactly/precisely and rather is a bit… that most can be idiomatically used as an intensifier meaning somewhat makes no difference to its real place as a superlative. That I can bang nails in with the handle of my screwdriver doesn't alter the fact I should use a hammer. – Robbie Goodwin Nov 14 '17 at 23:38

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