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This explains why 'least worst' is logically absurd, yet it accepts 'least bad'.

  1. Does 'least bad' = best? Is this adjective grammatically valid? It sounds wrong and superfluous.

  2. If "more/most good/bad, less/least bad/good" are always wrong, then what legitimates 'least bad'?

  3. Are there any other adjectives of this construct or form or issue?

Source: p 146, The Legal Analyst, Ward Farnsworth

Or you can have people cast votes between a series of pairs, and then consider who does best—who gets the most votes in all those pair-wise contests (an idea associated with Jean-Charles de Borda), or who has the least bad negative showing in any of them...

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2 Answers 2

"Least bad" is ordinary English. ("Least worst" is ungrammatical: double AND contradictory superlatives.)

Note that in your quotation "least bad" qualifies "negative showing": all the results, that is, are pretty bad. In this instance, "best" would be out of place since it supposes a scale of good / better / best. Consequently, the author prefers to rank the results on a scale of "badness": bad / less bad / least bad.

You might need this sort of construction in any circumstance where you are dealing with polar values surrounding a 'zero' or neutral point. For instance:

healthy / healthier / healthiest ... unhealthy / less unhealthy / least unhealthy

happy / happier / happiest ... sad / less sad / least sad

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Yes, "least bad" means "best", but it strongly implies all the options are bad or negative. It could also mean the options have both positive and negative attributes but only the (lack of) negative attributes are being considered (perhaps this fits your quote).

It does appear to be perfectly grammatical. It does, however, sound a little wrong to my ear.

Sorry this is largely conjecture, but here's my point-form essay on why "least bad" might sound jarring:

  • The word bad is used by children. ("the bad man"), or by adults talking to children ("That was a bad thing to do!").

  • Adults typically avoid the word bad through the use of litotes ("not good"), or by using more formal-sounding language ("underperforming")

  • When adults do call something bad, it's usually something abstract or impersonal ("bad news", "bad weather", "bad timing", "bad taste", "bad option")

  • The taboo on the word "bad" does not apply to "worst". ("worst man [for the job]", "worst thing [we could do]", "worst enemy", "worst fears", "worst case")

  • "least bad" is a rare case where the word "bad" is used in a comparison, avoiding the use of the irregular comparative/superlative forms: "worse" or "worst"

  • It sounds weird, because there is a taboo around saying childish-sounding words like "bad", and yet it's being used in a formal sense.

  • People say "least worst" because the meaning is understood (even if it's technically non-standard) and it doesn't break the taboo around the word "bad".

Now, having a look at the given quote:

...the least bad negative showing...

I'm not sure why it couldn't just be written "least negative showing". Perhaps it is the least bad of the negative showings? Perhaps it was written to avoid the phrase "least negative negative showing". I don't understand the context well enough to judge.

Elsewhere where I've seen the phrase "least bad option", it seems to be to emphasize that all the options are bad, and perhaps trying to grab attention by the odd sounding phrase (e.g. it's used in the title of a study, and in news headlines reporting the study).

Finally, here's a graph so you can evaluate for yourself which is the least bad of the options, by usage in books over the years:

Over the years in books: least bad,least worst,least negative

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Type O Negative took this to humorous extremes with their "best of" compilation album The Least Worst of Type O Negative. –  hobbs Aug 4 at 20:06

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