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Thursday, August 19, 2010

What does "most" mean?

At language log a few weeks ago some of us were commenting on the issue of what most means. This is a very common word that everyone uses in English, and the meaning does not seem that controversial, but some of us thought that it meant the same as "the majority," i.e., 50 percent + 1, whereas for others of us it meant a supermajority.

I am in the second category. I would find it strange to say "most Americans live East of the Rockies." For me, pragmatically, most expresses a generalization, not merely a statistical fact. I wouldn't say "Most people passed the exam" if 12 out of 20 did--and 8 failed it. Or "Most people are Asian," meaning that a bare majority of the population of the world lives there. Others commenting on the blog, though, were fine with that kind of expression. I'm not saying they are wrong, because in some contexts and dictionary definitions most = majority, but native speakers differ on how their intuitions about the word.

Writing with precision is difficult, if even a simple, common word can be that ambiguous. People will misunderstand your points even if you write with the greatest precision, so if you are less than precise, the results could be more disastrous.

We reach generalizing conclusions all the time in scholarship. We want to say that a certain fact is valid about a certain percentage of what we are talking about. Most can be used to fudge the issue, since it has the literal meaning of 51% but the connotation--at least for some of us--of an overwhelming majority (80-99).

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