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In one post, a commenter maintained that the phrases "I did my best" and "I did the best I could" don't mean quite the same thing.

If it is true, what is the fine difference between the two?

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I'm the one who made that comment. I am a native English speaker. I will explain what I was thinking, though in preparing this answer I may have talked myself into accepting that there is no difference in meaning.

Provided that "do one's best" is an idiom, is "I did the best I could" a proper phrase to be used at all?

I don't see why one phrase being an idiom has anything to do with whether another phrase is "proper", but in any case "I did the best I could" is a common expression.

is there really a fine difference between the two?

The two phrases can be used interchangeably. The meaning is very similar, or, arguably, the same: the shared idiomatic meaning is that I tried as hard as I could.

The reason I said that they don't mean quite the same thing is that in my experience when someone says "I did the best I could", what they mean but aren't saying explicitly is "I did the best I could in the circumstances". For example, in preparing dinner I did the best I could with the ingredients available in the refrigerator, but if I'd had time to go to the supermarket I could have bought more ingredients to cook something much nicer. Or in running a race I did the best I could given that I had the flu, but usually I'm a better runner than that.

"I did my best" can be and often is used in exactly the same way: that in the circumstances I could not have done any better. But sometimes the literal meaning is intended, that the result is the best I am capable of in any circumstances - I have come across this intended meaning occasionally. I have never heard "I did the best I could" used to mean the best I'm capable of in any circumstances. So that is the subtle difference that I had in mind.

I accept that not everyone will see any difference between the two. As I said at the beginning of my answer, I'm not sure that I see a difference anymore either. The two phrases do feel slightly different to me, but I can't explain that any better than what I've already said. Sorry, I did the best I could...

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    I'm awfully sorry to have questioned your competence. Now that I've had your detailed answer I seem to be starting to grasp the nuance as it was clearly shown in the examples. I copy-pasted it for further perusal. Thanks ever so much, it was a great answer, pleasure to read and think it over again. – VictorB May 31 '16 at 14:12
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    It sounds like "I did the best I could [under the circumstances]" is sort of like "I did my best [with what I had]." Good cooking analogy. – J.R. May 31 '16 at 14:23
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    I entirely concur. I will just add that I anticipate with the usage you describe that "I did the best I could" will have a tone that implies defensiveness. The person using that phrase is not entirely happy with their performance, and are speaking in contradiction of that feeling. The phrase "I did my best", however, might as you say be used either that way, or with actual, unalloyed pride. – Codeswitcher Jun 1 '16 at 1:44
  • @Codeswitcher - Good point about the defensiveness. The phrase is often used in reply to a criticism: "This lasagne is terrible!" "Sorry, I did the best I could with this primitive oven." – nnnnnn Jun 1 '16 at 2:33
  • "Pay my respects to grace and virtue / Send my condolences to good / Hear my regards to soul and romance / They always did the best they could" – John Dvorak Jun 2 '16 at 13:49
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When I hear I did the best I could I think the speaker might be implying that he could have done better but there was something external (something that wasn't up to him) that affected his performance. So he did the best he could but maybe he could have done better if he was given better tools (i.e. I did the best I could with the given tools which is not my absolute best). Another example would be "I did the best I could under those specific conditions and circumstances".

On the other hand we have I did my best which I think is just more generic. It just says that I did my best with no reference to anything that may have affected my performance. So it could be the best I could in the given context or just my absolute best.

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Answer 1:
I did my best to think of an example where there would be a meaningful difference between the two, but I'm coming up empty.

Both phrases talk about putting the utmost effort into some endeavor, be it a sculpture, a race, a homework assignment, or some other task.

Sorry I couldn't say anything more than that. I did the best I could.


Answer 2:
I did the best I could to think of an example where there would be a meaningful difference between the two, but I'm coming up empty.

Both phrases talk about putting the utmost effort into some endeavor, be it a novel, a skating routine, a Stack Exchange answer, or some other task.

Sorry I couldn't say anything more than that. I did my best.


In Summary
If anyone can point out a difference between Answer 1 and Answer 2, we might be able to unlock the mystery. Grammatically, I suppose, they may have a slightly different feel to them; I think I did the best I could works better at the end of a sentences than at the beginning, so I'm somewhat partial to Answer 1.

Insofar as meaning goes, though, I can't discern even a slight difference.

  • I couldn't find one either. Though maybe the second one emphasizes a bit more on me, the I, and might convey a bit more implication from the speaker. – MadWard May 31 '16 at 13:24
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    I like the way you presented the parallel answers. – nnnnnn May 31 '16 at 21:29
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It's very subtle, but I see a distinction.

  • "I did my best" is all on me. I swept aside all obstacles, and this was my very best possible performance.
  • "I did the best I could" allows for working within the obstacles set before me.

There's also the setting of expectation:

  • "I did my best" sets an expectation of being passable to high quality
  • "I did the best I could" sets a lower expectation

Further to the above, variations of each phrase can be used to comment on someone else's work:

  • "You did your best" says I didn't expect any better
  • "You did the best you could" raises the possibility of better performance

Turning each of those into a question:

  • "You did your best?" seems to be a genuine question, awaiting confirmation ("Yes, I did my best.")
  • "This is the best you could do?" is a rhetorical challenge, with the only response being defensive ("No, I didn't have everything I needed.", or "Yes, under the circumstances." -- it demands an excuse or explanation, and answering "Yes, this is the best I could do." seems even a bit flippant.)
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To me I did the best I could means you did your best in the given scenario and that was not the one you've imagined or expected so you think it could be better. On the other hand I did my best means you could perform your very best because nothing was conspiring against you.

With nothing was conspiring against you I meant that you were in a perfect moment, inspired, healthy and psychologically prepared to do your very best.

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I am not a native English speaker. In English, there are many expressions that you use to add emphasis to superlatives. For example:

She is the most beautiful woman.

She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen on the face of the earth.

Which of the three do you think has the strongest emphasis that there could be?

Usually, the relative clause that follows any superlative is used for emphasis. I think "I did the best I could" adds more emphasis. But it is less emphatic than

I did the best I could possibly do in my entire life.

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This is a very interesting question, and I was intrigued to read the answers given. My impression of the phrases is slightly different, so I thought I would share my insights. (I am, by the way, a native English speaker from the western United States.)

I did my best - Self affirmation, or reassurance that one has given something their best effort and can feel good about that effort. In essence, one is saying, "I feel good about my efforts."

I did the best I could - Defensive statement, attempting to convince others that one did the best that could have been expected of them by anyone judging the situation. In essence, one is saying, "You couldn't expect more of me."

Despite my personal impression of these phrases, I could see someone using either phrase to express either meaning. I could even see myself exchanging these terms with their meanings in certain circumstances, so clearly they're not mutually exclusive.

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