Does the sentence "The box contains, at most, one marble." apply if the box contains no marbles?

  • 2
    Yes, the sentence applies even if you've lost all your marbles.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 0:12
  • Commas don't contribute much here. Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 22:56

3 Answers 3


Yes. 'At most' means means 'not more than' So, the sentence: "The box contains, at most, one marble.", naturally means that the box would have one marble or less than that(zero).


There are at least three contexts in which the statement may be made.

We may be describing the capacity of the box. For example, I want to buy a box to contain marbles and I like the red one with dimensions 1.1 cm cube. My marbles are 1 cm diameter. So the vendor may helpfully point out to me that this box contains, at most, one marble. This descriptive statement is true whether or not there is a marble in the box.

We may be considering a closed marble box such as my red one, whose contents we do not know. It is correct and logical to say that it contains none or one marble, or the logical equivalent “at most, one”. This is a statement about the only two logical possibilities.

If we are looking at my open red box, the statement does not tell us the self-evident fact that there is or is not a marble, it merely describes the capacity of the box.

In all these cases, the box may contain one marble or none.

  • 1
    I don't think 'contains' for 'will hold' is common enough to mention; most dictionaries seem to avoid mentioning the sense. Certainly, out of context the usage violates the Gricean maxim of clarity. // Otherwise, I'd say the question is far from suitable on ELU. Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 12:56
  • @EdwinAshworth I don’t see your point about hold/contain but have removed reference to hold, so you should have no qualms now.
    – Anton
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 23:28
  • 1
    Have you a dictionary example sentence using 'contains' for 'will hold'? While I concede it's a usage sometimes found, I'd say it's very rare. Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 10:56

The phrase "at most" indicative an upper bound. Mathematically, any number of marbles that does not exceed the upper bound of 1, such as 1, 0, 0.5, -10, etc. would be consistent with your sentence, although physically it is difficult to have a negative number of marbles.

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