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Why do we use "the least" in this sentence:

She is the least polite person in our family.

A person is a countable noun so shouldn't we use:

She is the fewest polite person

... ?

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5

"Least" in this sentence is an adverb; it applies to "polite" (an adjective), not to "person" (a count noun).

"Fewest" is an adjective, not an adverb; it applies only to count nouns, so it would not be usable in this sentence.

Compare the following two sentences:

  • Our family has the fewest people of any in the village.

    ("fewest" as an adjective modifying the noun "people")

  • She is the least polite person in our family.

    ("least" as an adverb modifying the adjective "polite", which in turn is modifying the noun "people")

  • Of all the people in our family, she is the least polite.

    (a rewording of your sentence, with exactly the same meaning, which makes it clearer that "least" applies to "polite" and not "person")

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You aren't counting the person in the sentence, you're modifying 'polite' with the word 'least.'

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She is the least polite person in our family.
her level of politeness is very low (least)

"least" is being used to mean "low level".

"Least" can also mean "not much" which in some cases might be synonymous with "least"

He made the fewest errors.
He made the least number of errors.

"Fewest" ordinarily does not get used to describe a small number when referring to people it is usually

one of the few

She is one of the few least polite people I know.
I know a few people who are impolite, and she is one of them

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