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I came across this sentence and was curious what purpose the word "of" serves:

They were not the best of messengers.

Searching terms like "'best of' vs. 'best'" brings up discussions about phrases like "best of luck." In the same sense, is the example sentence saying they were not the best suited to deliver the message out of all possible messengers?

Would saying "They were not the best messengers." change the meaning?

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    Both best messengers and best of messengers are idiomatic. Their meanings are almost identical. I believe the ...of messengers simply helps focus attention on messengers, perhaps because it is being introduced into the conversation for the first times. – WS2 Apr 28 '18 at 7:33
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On the one hand, your analysis of sort of 'semantic origins' of the best of messengers is probably correct: the best messengers out of all possible messengers.

However, the meaning of Kim and Jane were not the best of messengers is simply this: they were not very good messengers.

Moreover, Kim and Jane were not the best messengers has, as best as I can tell, the same meaning—at least as written, and if no special intonation is used (see below).

If you wanted to convey that Kim and Jane were perhaps still very good messengers, just not literary the very best ones, then you'd need to rephrase in some way and perhaps use special intonation:

Kim and Jane were not the best messengers, but they were very good ones nonetheless.

Note that in this case it is not semantically possible to use the of-construction. The sentence

Kim and Jane were not the best of messengers, but they were very good ones nonetheless.

sounds like a contradicition, at least to my ear.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response. It seems they could be interpreted as having slightly different meanings in specific contexts but generally mean the same thing. – Christopher Issac Apr 28 '18 at 5:48
  • @christopher-issac Yes, that seems about right. – linguisticturn Apr 28 '18 at 14:46
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no. Meanings and luck are both in themselves, variable summary or circumstance. Luck is not something which has a confirmed or concrete result/outcome. It is questionable even, of its 'meaning'. Hence -'man makes his own luck'. There is no certainty. As for meanings, it really is now the same thing in modern day. The english language and its words had meanings. NOW...- americans question the british use of english words. Amazing, if you consider the fact that BRITAIN is not a country, AND british, is not a language. England speaks english. Britain is a few countries added to england and the basis of the british empire. No different to how americas was called 'little britian' many years ago. Then amorica region in brittany (northern france) was given to the current land - 'america'. BEST is a singular and of no question. BEST OF is of continued advancement to obtain the collective 'best of'--- best of 5 james? the first to win over 50% of 5 games of squash. Best of- Meaning the choice or possible gain of 'others'

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