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For example, Shanghai is a "highly-populated city " or "one of most populous cities"in China. Are they both correct? If so, which one is more common?

  • Google Ngrams aren't a final proof, but this one is in favour of 'most populous'. Although, 'most' is a superlative, and I'm not sure that those two phrases mean exactly the same thing. – Lucky Jun 10 '15 at 2:29
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    They mean different things. If you consider a city's population to be high (or maybe dense), then it is highly-populated. If it is literally a city with one of the highest populations in the region in question, then it is one of the most populous cities. For example, I don't think anyone would call the city of Juneau "highly populated". It is, however, "one of the most populous cities in Alaska". – commando Jun 10 '15 at 3:24
  • True. Mumbai could be highly populated city, but Shanghai is the most populous. 'high' and 'the most'... as Lucky says are different. – Maulik V Jun 10 '15 at 4:39
  • by the way, "highly populated city" does not have a hyphen. Adverb used to modify adjective does not require hyphen. – Brian Hitchcock Jun 10 '15 at 9:21
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This is just like many and most.

Definition of many by Google:

a large number of.

Definition of most by Google:

greatest in amount or degree.


Hence,

"highly-populated city" means a city that is populous while "most populous city" means the city is more populated than any other cities.

The difference is that most is a superlative while highly populated is like a normal adjective.

Here are few more examples:

I have many games.

I have the most games in the world.

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