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The tl;dr version is the title plus, the last paragraph. FWIW, some background really helps.

Background: I have always thought at least and at the very least are the grammatical and idiomatic phrases I could use. Today, I ran into this comment:

Welcome to Chem.SE! This appears to be a homework question. Please see the policy on posting homework questions here; at the least, please include more details on your thought process so far in trying to answer this question. - Brian yesterday

This raised my alarm for being ungrammatical; however, as free dictionary says, at the least does exist, so does at very least:

Question: Now this is very baffling. At least doesn't have a definite article, while at the very least does. They are so much more common than their "evil twins" that I reckon some would only consider them grammatical.

So, my question is why? What does the definite article the indicate in at the very least that it doesn't and shouldn't in at least? This doesn't seem to be a matter of pure stylic choice, as there seems to be a consensus about which version of the idioms to use.


Edit: I'm not looking to find contextual differences. I'm concerned about a grammatical explanation about what's going on.

  • You should add some actual examples you found using each phrase in question. Otherwise we are doing the research or guessing what the context differences might be. – user3169 Jun 19 '15 at 17:04
  • @user3169 I'm not actually looking for differences in context. I'm looking for a grammatical explanation. – M.A.R. ಠ_ಠ Jun 19 '15 at 17:23
  • Can you show us an example that uses "at very least"? – F.E. Jun 20 '15 at 3:06
  • I think I'm familiar with the usages: "(the (very)) least". But the usage "at very least" seems somewhat not so familiar to me--and so, I'm interested in seeing how and when it is/was used. – F.E. Jun 20 '15 at 3:09
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Why is at very least so uncommon compared to at the very least?

Because at the very least is valid syntax while at very least is not. Without a definite article, the word very is an adverb that describes additional (positive or negative) magnitude. The word least describes a concept that by definition cannot receive additional magnitude (the smallest thing isn't the smallest thing if there is something smaller).

What does the definite article the indicate in at the very least that it doesn't and shouldn't in at least?

The definite article allows the word very to act as an adjective meaning "genuine; true in the fullest sense of the word; precise; particular" instead of trying to increase its magnitude. These are modifiers which the word least can accept.

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