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Let us suppose that, among other people, there are two folks, Kristina and Monica, who are imaginative in a different degree.

Kristina is much the most imaginative of them all.

Monica is by far the most imaginative of them all.

According to the English language usage, who is really the most imaginative, Kristina or Monica?

  • Mu: the first sentence is not really idiomatic. You can say "much more", but you can't really say "much the most". – Martha Mar 10 '13 at 22:41
  • Martha, as a native, and competent, speaker if you affirm that "much the most" is not idiomatic, surely you are right, but I read that phrase in Practical English Usage" by M. Swan (Page 117). So, I asked reporting it. – user114 Mar 10 '13 at 22:47
  • ... Swan say "Superlative can be modified by much and by far, [...]" and, as an example sentence, he writes "He's much the most imaginative of them all". – user114 Mar 10 '13 at 22:55
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    Perhaps FumbleFingers is right, and this is merely an old-fashioned (or possibly obsolete) expression; or perhaps it's a British vs. American difference. All I can tell you is, "He is much the most [adjective]" just sounds wrong to me. Adding "pretty" helps because then you're merely combining "pretty much" (a set phrase that functions as an adverb) and "the most". – Martha Mar 10 '13 at 23:16
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    @Martha: It may be a declining usage, but I think it's putting it a bit strong to say he is much the more is "obsolete". That's 100s of 1000s of instances on the Net, and probably most of them were written in the last decade. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '13 at 23:43
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You've taken me by surprise, as I had never read the example you refer to in Swan's book. Still, it is there, and I have no explanation to its presence, because I have never come across any similar sentence in my readings.

What I am sure of is that we frequently use by far to stress a superlative form, so I have no problem with or doubt about your second example; much is on the contrary very frequently found with comparative forms, along with far.

I hope some native speaker or a more knowledgeable teacher of English can explain the first example. I wouldn't want to have doubts about Michael Swan's correctness...

  • Per my own answer, much the more/most are perfectly valid forms. But they're a bit starchy to the modern ear, so it's not that unlikely you've never come across (or at least, noticed) them in casual speech, where we nearly always use by far the most. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '13 at 23:33
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As comments/answers indicate, some native speakers aren't particularly happy with OP's much example. That's a matter of personal preference, not grammar as such, though as this chart suggests, much the more and much the most are declining usages:

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On the other hand, as this chart shows, "by far" is by far the most popular choice, and always was:

enter image description here

So, both OP's examples are grammatically valid taken in isolation (though #2 is definitely the more common phrasing). But as a pair they're nonsensical, since only one of the girls can be the most imaginative, regardless of whether we include "modifiers of degree" to indicate that their powers of imagination are significantly (as opposed to perhaps just marginally) higher than others.

If we're to understand the question as meaning which form conveys stronger conviction on the part of the speaker, I think it's really impossible to answer. As explained above, most people wouldn't use the first version anyway (though it could be strengthened even further by using very much). But they're all just variant ways of saying the same thing; they can't be ranked by "degree".

  • This is an excellent answer, but I think to a different question; I think the "is much valid here" discussion in the comments has confused what the OP was asking about. – WendiKidd Mar 10 '13 at 23:21
  • @WendiKidd: As you were typing that comment, I was adding my last paragraph to address the actual question. Though I must admit if I'd thought that was all we were dealing with, I think I'd have closevoted as Too Localised (read, General Reference). I'm surprised at Carlo asking such a basic question. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '13 at 23:27
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    Could you explain why you believe TL can be used for questions which are GR? I can understand why GR questions could be off-topic (we don't want to duplicate the efforts of the dictionaries available online), but many GR questions are not localized at all. – snailcar Mar 11 '13 at 2:24
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    @snailplane: I don't want to split hairs - mainly, TL because ELL doesn't support GR. But obviously if OP is one of only a few people on the planet who doesn't realise it's obvious you can't award the rank of mostest to one of two girls we're just been told are both unquestionably the most, it's TL because hardly anyone else needs to be told that. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 at 2:33
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Here's how I would use "much" and "by far" in this context:

Kristina is much more imaginative than the rest.

Monica is by far the most imaginative of them all.

Those sound more natural to my ear – assuming we are talking about Kristina, Monica, Zoe, and Todd (as per my comment in your question).

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    J.R., I agree with all you've stated here, but I think the discussion over the "much" construction in the comments caused confusion about the OP's actual question. He was taking for granted that the construction was correct, and asking something else entirely. – WendiKidd Mar 10 '13 at 23:27
  • @Wendi: I think you're right; I think I misunderstood the gist of the question a little bit. Still, I'll leave this here, because there may be some value in showing how I'd use the qualifiers "much" and "by far" to express superlatives. – J.R. Mar 10 '13 at 23:47
  • J.R.: Oh yes, I think this is quite valuable information. Just thought I'd point it out! – WendiKidd Mar 10 '13 at 23:53
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"Much" and "by far" are simply modifiers of to what extent the given person is the most imaginative of all. For example, the most imaginative person in the group could be only slightly more imaginative than the second most imaginative person, or they could be a lot more imaginative. Regardless, the fact is that when you say they are the most imaginative, you are saying that they are at the top of the group. This is regardless of by how much they are the most imaginative.

So the answer to your question is that these statements cannot both be true. If Kristina is (by whatever degree) the most imaginative of them all, Monica cannot also be the most imaginative of them all (and vice versa). The "much" and "by far" are superfluous, and your sentences can be rewritten as:

Kristina is the most imaginative of them all.

Monica is the most imaginative of them all.

In this case it is more clear that both statements cannot be true. It doesn't matter by how much the most imaginative person is ahead of the rest; only one person can be the most imaginative.

  • I think the idea is that you're comparing statements from two different people, and trying to ascertain not the imaginativeness of Kristina and Monica, but rather how other people's opinions of them rank on the imaginativeness scale. – Martha Mar 10 '13 at 23:20
  • @Martha I asked Carlo in comments if this is what he meant, and he said it was. It's still possible I've misunderstood, but I suppose Carlo shall have to determine that! – WendiKidd Mar 10 '13 at 23:22
  • I think that's taking things a bit too literally. Carlo is merely trying to determine which construction is a stronger statement. It's like asking which is fewer, "some" or "several". – Martha Mar 10 '13 at 23:31
  • Monica may be the most imaginative, but suppose one wanted to convey that it's not even close in the imagination department. Put another way, let's say we were comparing Wendi, Carlo, J.R., and Bill Gates. Saying "Bill is the most wealthy of them all" is a bit of an understatement; instead, one might say, "Bill is by far the most wealthy of them all" (or, "Bill is much more wealthy than the rest of them"). So there are times when it's constructive to use the qualifiers. – J.R. Mar 10 '13 at 23:44
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    @J.R. Certainly! I only meant to say that, regardless of the qualifiers, both Bill Gates and J.R. cannot both be the wealthiest :) Perhaps superfluous was a bit strong on my part, though. – WendiKidd Mar 10 '13 at 23:51
2

Here's how I would use "much" and "by far" in this context:

Kristina is much more imaginative than the rest.

Monica is by far the most imaginative of them all.

Those sound more natural to my ear – assuming we are talking about Kristina, Monica, Zoe, and Todd (as per my comment in your question).

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