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Example:

Just because he does not say very much is no reason to sell him short. Actually, he's a profound thinker and a most talented writer. People tend to underestimate him and not give him the credit he deserves because they think he's shy.

How do you understand it grammatically? If it means the same thing as the most talented writer, then what's the difference?

36

It does not mean the same thing. Most can be used as a superlative, but it can also be used to indicate that something or someone possesses a property very much instead of the most.

By calling him the most talented writer, the author would exclude the possibility of any other writer being better. That is quite an impossible claim to maintain and will probably only end up in endless and useless discussion!

A most talented writer means roughly the same as an incredibly talented writer.

I think this use of most may be a bit dated... examples I can think of are sentences like:

Thank you ever so much, Charlotte. It was a most pleasant evening!

  • So, I assume when "most" is used like that, it's an adverb? In your example, it is obviously used as an adverb modifying the adjective "pleasant". Getting back to my example, I can ask this question: Q: how talented is he? A: He is most talented. – Michael Rybkin Nov 18 '14 at 15:48
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    +1 for a most (but not necessarily the most) excellent answer. – Joe Dark Nov 18 '14 at 15:50
  • @CookieMonster Yes, you can see most as an adverb modifying talented, and yes, your Q/A are plausible. I wonder if this use of the superlative was borrowed from Latin (where it seems to have been quite common) when some people tried to shape English into a Latin straight jacket... – oerkelens Nov 18 '14 at 15:51
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    I think it would be better not to call this "a superlative". The authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language appear to agree: on p.1165, this use is covered under "non-superlative uses of most", specifically under "intensifier most". – snailboat Nov 18 '14 at 16:39
  • @snailboat: you're probably right, I removed that word :) – oerkelens Nov 18 '14 at 17:18
23

most as an adverb has two different meanings:

1: to the greatest or highest degree —often used with an adjective or adverb to form the superlative (the most challenging job he ever had)

2: to a very great degree (was most persuasive)

Here, the meaning is the second definition.

If it were the first definition, the definite article would be required: the most visible star in the night sky (there can only be one single most visible star). However, the second definition of "most" is merely an intensifier like "very" and does allow the indefinite article (a most delicious cake).

  • 2
    Though, "a most talented writer" sounds a bit dated. When I think of the kind of person who would say that, I think of this. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Nov 18 '14 at 18:01
4

Swan's PEU (Third Edition) has this entry as 356.7

It says...

most meaning 'very'

Most can be used before adjectives to mean 'very' in evaluating expressions, especially in a formal style.

The examples follow:

Thank you for a most interesting afternoon.
That is most kind of you (where even indefinite article is not placed).

3

As mentioned, most can be used as an intensifier ( ≈ "very" "quite" "exceptionally") IF it is preceded by something other than the. It is much more often used as a superlative when preceded by the. (the [only] most ... because there can be only one).

The intensifier "a most pleasant" is considered very formal, as "ever so much", mentioned above.

However, there's an exception to this rule: "the most..." is used as a highly informal intensifier, and is considered "Valley Speech"-type slang. Often used in reverse fashion along with "literally" used to mean not literally. This could be considered a mistaken use of both words, or as ironic slang (dialect, not ungrammatical — especially if no "literal" superlative could possibly exist). But it's the opposite of the formal usage mentioned above. And hence you're more likely to encounter it as an intensifier in slang form, with heavy emphasis placed on "the most" to indicate sarcasm. But it's the most likely context you'll see for the most as referring to anything other than the most.

  • "He was the most stellar singer I've ever heard."

    — "the most ... (ever)" is standard and always indicates superlative (the single most)

  • "[Like, ...] he was literally the most annoyingly sympathetic person."

    — Highly informal and possibly sarcastic. Note the lack of any possible literal superlative, so this is dialect, not grammar, but still, only in an informal setting. "valley speak intensifier"

  • "The scene outside the Opera was most upsetting. I almost dropped my monocle. Thank you ever so much for retrieving it."

    — Highly formal, rarely used outside of formal situations

  • "The scene outside the Opera was the most upsetting. I demand to be taken back to the Embassy now!"

    — Borderline case. When used as a superlative (the...), it must always refer to the (single) most of anything. It may be used as deliberate bad grammar in fiction to indicate a non-native English speaker, as (obnoxiously) in "The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel".

Then again, "the very best" can also be used as a slang intensifier, like "literally", "definitely", and "the most", to mean something other than the absolute best. But "the very best" has more wide acceptance in this phrase. When paired with a class description, "the most" and "very …est" are always definite superlatives.

You'll sometimes see formal or informal use of other …est as an intensifier as well, always without a class description to indicate the superlative. ("we had the happiest time!" is usually informal or polite; not as strong a statement as "we had the happiest vacation in 5 years" which is a more formal statement of fact).

Note that the emphasis is always placed on the "…est" when using it as an informal intensifier. "It is simply the most gracious gift!" (The most of what? nothing — It's an intensifier, as the emphasis indicates.) "It is the most gracious gift…" suggests an incomplete thought; perhaps the speaker forgot to get you something. ;-)

  • Although I should note it's possible to use the formal "(a) most" in a variety of contexts, such as thank-yous! And "the most" as intensifier is probably pretty common in a variety of informal English dialects. So you can impress someone with your sincerity (perhaps) by saying "Thank you (ever) so much, you are most kind!" or much more informal by saying "you're the most wonderful person!" I don't think "you are the most kind!" is attested, though: it's usually sarcastic. I've heard religious Southerners refer to "the Most High", but this is probably meant as a literal title. – Ber Mar 26 '16 at 3:46
  • Also, the frequency of "most" as verb modifier / "a most..." intensifier is probably related to British English. I believe it's a lot less formal in British dialects. It's more common in writing, and it's common at the end of sentences ("... I like most." is considered more proper than "...I like the most") so the formal distinction still applies. See also this answer for an explanation of the various meanings of most – Ber Mar 26 '16 at 4:55
  • Ah, and this answer has a breakdown of the use of -est in general! (superlative / intensifier). Note that these two links sort-of imply that most originated as a superlative meaning "the greatest part". (archaic: "the most of those knights went to battle"); the article was retained when referring to a specific instance ("of the knights, the most valiant [knights] went to battle"), but optional otherwise, and extended to an adverb (no article): ("[the] most valiant were the knights that..." ≠ "the knights were most valiant") – Ber Mar 26 '16 at 5:18
1

A most important one - there can be several of these because most means very here.

The most important one - there's only one of these because this is a superlative.

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