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Dictionaries state that "at best" is an idiom. But, what is the grammatical function of "at best" (for example, in the below sentences?)

  • Their response to the proposal was, at best, cool.
  • The government's response seems to have been at best confused and at worst dishonest.
  • If he drops the course now, at best he’ll get an incomplete, and he could fail.

Thanks

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In order to analyze this, it would be easier to start with one of the more standard definitions:

  • taking the most optimistic view
  • in the most favourable interpretation
  • under the most favourable condition

Then substitute the phrase for the definition:

  • Their response to the proposal was, in the most favorable interpretation, cool.
  • The government's response seems to have been in the most favorable view confused and in the least favorable view dishonest.
  • If he drops the course now, under the most optimistic outcome he’ll get an incomplete, and he could fail.

Now you can see it as a prepositional phrase. I think (but am not 100% sure unless someone supports this) that it would function as a disjunct adverbial. See http://www.linguisticsgirl.com/using-prepositional-phrases-disjunct-adverbials/

In the last sentence, there seems to be some element of uncertainty. Suppose it was a teacher who caught a student cheating. The teacher could give an incomplete, but the administration might fail him. In that case the teacher would say 'but':

  • If he drops the course now, under the most optimistic outcome he’ll get an incomplete, but he could fail.
  • In the last sentence, I'm having difficulty imagining a scenario where "and" could be used. – CoolHandLouis Jan 6 '15 at 20:52
  • I think that this is a good explanation of the meaning. In most cases, I would opt for using "at best" or "at worst", since the other phrases are longer and have a more formal feeling. However, if I were writing an article to be published, I might choose the longer versions. In speaking, I would always use "at best" or "at worst" unless I want to place emphasis (perhaps sarcastically) on how poorly the outcome is. "Their response to the proposal was, in the most favorable interpretation, cool." - with strong emphasis on "most favorable". – PurpleDiane Jan 6 '15 at 21:02
  • I agree with @CoolHandLouis about the last sentence. It should be either "but" or "or". Actually, I would probably say "If he drops the course now, he will either get an incomplete, if he is lucky, or he might fail." This is because there are only the two options, not a range like the other examples. – PurpleDiane Jan 6 '15 at 21:07
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In those sentences, at best functions as an adverbial phrase. In your examples, it modifies either an adjective or a whole clause. I've marked the part of the sentence that at best modifies in bold below:

Their response to the proposal was, at best, cool.

The government's response seems to have been at best confused and at worst dishonest.

If he drops the course now, at best he’ll get an incomplete, and he could fail.

Of course, this is English, a language where grammatical distinctions are sometimes fuzzy, and one could argue that at best modifies was in the first sentence. The main thing to know is that at best works as a whole to modify something else, and it follows the ordinary rules for prepositional phrases. Here are some other prepositional phrases that work grammatically the same way: at the earliest, at the latest, at most, at least, at all, at last, at any event.

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