a most important one <vs> 'the' most important one'

SuprunP

Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
His [Mr Flay's] hands hung at his sides, for it would not have been right for him to touch the Lady Fuchsia however benevolent his motive, for he was, after all, only a servant although a most important one.
(M. Peake; Titus Groan; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titus_Groan)

Why not 'the most important one'?

Thanks.
 
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  • Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    To me it sounds a bit old-fashioned, possibly British. I read the USA today link with a bit of a smile. The quaint expression makes me want to read the story. In fact, when you do look below, the story says that the Fusion is "the most important" car in Ford's line-up. The reporter wrote the story in standard modern American English and the headline writer, a different person, had a little fun with it.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    One hope I have for a site of this kind is that it may show the connectedness and universality of good English and thus work against the idea that there are separate English languages in different parts of the world.

    In that spirit, here are two more current American examples of 'a most important':

    http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi3300_needs.html
    The Most Important Emotional Needs
    Very few ever named a most important emotional need that was not included in this list of ten.

    http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@global/documents/downloadable/ucm_313219.pdf
    The heart, the heart, the heart. Is a most important part.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The COCA does nevertheless have quite a lot of apparently non-parodistic examples, particularly of the phrase most important in parenthesis to mean very important, as in the Fukuyama example:

    The flap over Peter Arnett and press freedom in a war seems to overlook a most important point.
    San Francisco Chronicle, Letters to the Editor. (1991)

    That model is now exhausted: welfare states have become big, bureaucratic, and inflexible; they are often captured by the very organizations that administer them, through public-sector unions; and, most important, they are fiscally unsustainable given the aging of populations virtually everywhere in the developed world. The Future of History, Francis Fukuyama (2012)
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    One hope I have for a site of this kind is that it may show the connectedness and universality of good English and thus work against the idea that there are separate English languages in different parts of the world.

    In that spirit, here are two more current American examples of 'a most important':

    http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi3300_needs.html
    The Most Important Emotional Needs
    Very few ever named a most important emotional need that was not included in this list of ten.

    http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@global/documents/downloadable/ucm_313219.pdf
    The heart, the heart, the heart. Is a most important part.
    I'm sorry but BE and AE are completely different languages. Take a top British editor in any domain--a newspaper, a publishing house etc. and sit that person down with a person of similar caliber from the United States. Give them a text to edit. It would be impossible for them to agree on anything, unless of course it was decided in advance whether the text should be written in BE or AE.

    I would also like to clarify that my comment that most sounds quaint or British only applies only to the usage of most to mean very, as in "a most," not all usages of the word most. The phrase the most important cited in Wandle's post is perfectly natural in current AE. The most important thing to remember etc. Also in Thomas' example, the use he found in the COCA of most important is not what we are talking about here. Most important in that sentence literally means most important--not very important.

    Wandle's other example is a poem or a song, so a slightly quaint turn of phrase would be expected. Of his three earlier examples (post #5), the first is a newspaper headline, where cute or quaint is a plus. The second is a powerpoint presentation which, if you skim it even briefly, is clearly not written by a native English speaker. The third is a blog post about a Jane Austen novel, so the author was having some fun using an expression that would have been used 200 years ago.

    Bear in mind that I never said a most cannot be used in AE, or that it is incorrect. I simply said that to me as a native speaker it sounds old-fashioned or British, and often in a pleasant sort of way. We do have one BE speaker above, Ewie, who says that he considers this use of most to be old-fashioned; other British speakers disagree.

    No one is wrong, as each of us is stating how we personally perceive the language. We are of different ages, from different geographic regions and perhaps also from different socioeconomic strata. I think it is interesting and helpful when native speakers articulate these types of personal perceptions in threads. If I were a learner of English I would want to know certainly that this usage is going to be considered quaint by some--a fact which I think has clearly been established in this thread.

    << Not needed. >>
     
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    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I would also like to clarify that my comment that most sounds quaint [...] applies only to the usage of most to mean very, as in "a most. ,"
    We do have one BE speaker above, Ewie, who says that he considers this use of most to be old-fashioned
    Thanks for saying all that for me, Embonpoint:)
    That use of most to mean 'very' is distinctly old-fashioned
    I completely stand by what I said in post #2.

    Giving dubious or totally non-analogous citations helps no-one.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    To call the phrase "a most important" (in the sense of very important) distinctly old-fashioned is a misuse of language. It may be more of a literary expression than a spoken phrase, but that doesn't make it old-fashioned.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    One hope I have for a site of this kind is that it may show the connectedness and universality of good English and thus work against the idea that there are separate English languages in different parts of the world.
    One thing I have learnt from this site, is that it is NOT universally agree upon in different countries.
    There ARE separate versions, dialects at least, in different parts of the world. I rather like it and find it most interesting.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'm with suzi.

    Quoting examples of "a most important" doesn't nullify people's individual reactions.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm a little surprised at the suggestion that quoting examples of modern uses might be thought necessarily to counter individual reactions given by members. Perhaps I've missed the point again.

    I was interested in Embonpoint's explanation of the Ford article, and produced further examples in the hope of further elucidation.

    It seems to me that individual reactions are often very valuable and that individual reactions to counter-examples are often very valuable too, in coming to a balanced view, if there is such a thing. Notice I don't say most valuable, because even I would sense an archaic usage there, but I wouldn't in the case of most important as used by Fukuyama.

    I haven't given a view about whether most to mean very sounds old-fashioned in general to me in BE, because I feel that the issue is more complicated than some here have suggested.

    Is it not at least possible that in some circumstances, with some adjectives, maybe particularly adjectives ending in -y, to avoid the sound of something like very wary, for instance, or before some adverbs ending in -ly for similar reasons, the usage is common, current, and modern, and that in others it is unusual enough to sound quaint to some ears?

    I wouldn't hesitate to use it in formal writing, where other considerations didn't disqualify it.
     
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    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    I mentioned this to a friend who teaches BE about this, and she brought up most welcome. You are most welcome, she says, is common in BE. In the U.S., of course, we would say, "you are very welcome."
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Another possibility which occurred to me overnight was that most might be preferred by some people to very where an adjective starts with an i. Most important avoids the veryimportant merge of sounds, not that it's very difficult to articulate very important.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    While we often refer to usage as simply AE or BE (and often that's justifiable), there are many instances where regional and even social-group variations come into play. Maybe it's ewie's NW Englandish vs my predominantly S-by-SW Englandish (or not), but I'm still sitting squarely on my chair.:p

    Although I generally use 'very' or some other equivalent, I do sometimes use 'most' in more formal contexts, both written and spoken — and it certainly doesn't sound old-fashioned when I hear it used by others.

    Although Embonpoint may discount this because it's a song, I immediately think of Simon and Garfunkel's "A Most Peculiar Man" — AE, 1965: maybe that qualifies it as 'old-fashioned' (!), but I'd say it's more to do with style. The same song has "he seldom spoke", which some might consider old-fashioned, but also has " 'Cause he wasn't friendly", which sounds pretty modern colloquial to me. I don't think this one's black and white.

    Ws:)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The ngrams are revealing:

    I needed to discount examples where most important was being used as a superlative, or where most means a great part (most important books on the subject etc.).

    The results (remember you can switch between AE and BE on the graph) suggest:

    1. That most to mean very is still quite widely used in AE (the scale on the y-axis is at quite high readings).

    2. That the use is a little more usual relative to very in BE.

    3. That its use was more usual relative to very back in 1870 or so - in BE the use was very similar back then. Whether that makes its current use archaic is a moot point.

    There are other suggestions that present themselves, but I feel the other point which needs making is that these ngrams do not count what may be one of the most common uses of most for very, which seems to me to be the parenthetical most important, as used in the Fukuyama example I quoted. I couldn't think of a way of testing for that in the ngrams, that's to say one which discounted the common other uses of the collocation.

    I suspect this is common enough in AE, and Embonpoint didn't accept my invitation to comment on it. If that use could be counted, it would considerably increase the usage of most for very in both AE and BE, of course.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    That model is now exhausted: welfare states have become big, bureaucratic, and inflexible; they are often captured by the very organizations that administer them, through public-sector unions; and, most important, they are fiscally unsustainable given the aging of populations virtually everywhere in the developed world. The Future of History, Francis Fukuyama (2012)
    Erm ... am I missing something, MrT? ~ isn't this 'parenthetical' use of most important shorthand for 'the most important thing' rather than 'a very important thing'?:confused:
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    That's most interesting, Mr E. I read it as and, what is very important, they are fiscally unsustainable etc.

    In trying to read it your way, I can't envisage the list of things among which this is the most important. The they are often captured-sentence is an expansion/explanation of the big, bureaucratic, and inflexible idea, and so the fact that they can't go on working as they are now I see being presented as a very important point, rather than the most important one.

    However, I said there must be lots of examples of the collocation in the parenthetical sense I was suggesting, so I ought to be able to produce some more from the COCA, which has 22,612 examples of the collocation.

    How about these two? How do they strike you, Mr E?

    Many relationships are still unclear, such as the relative importance of family size and composition, employment, fuelwood availability, and, most important, the cost of energy alternatives.
    Who Adopts Improved Fuels and Cookstoves? A Systematic Review.

    In addition, total number of functional elements increased almost threefold and, most important, overall scores for writing quality almost doubled. The Effectiveness of Teaching 10th-Grade Students STOP, AIMS, and DARE for Planning and Drafting Persuasive Text.

    I can see the first example could just be taken your way, but regard the second one as quite unequivocal: these are literate writers, and they are only talking about two factors (the increase in functional elements and the rise in scores for writing quality). Had they wished to make a point of comparison, they would surely have said more not most.

    ps. For comparison, here is an example of very important in what I regard as the same parenthetical use, again from the COCA. Obviously here it cannot have the superlative sense, Mr E:

    The important processes of constructing laws, elaborating models, and developing theories based on data extend, clarify, and unite the observations and data and , very important, develop deeper and broader explanations. Teaching about the history and nature of Science and Technology, Laurel R. Singleton.
     
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    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    Most important is indeed extremely widely used in AE. However, as Ewie notes, Thomas is misunderstanding the way it is used. Most in this context does not mean very. It means most ie. the most important of the things I am listing. For example:

    In order to comment with authority on American English, one must speak regularly to Americans, spend time in the U.S. and most important, be a native speaker of American English.

     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    I do think we - and I include myself here - are perhaps a bit quick to attribute personal or regional differences to "Oh, that must be an AmE/BE difference." Sometimes that's exactly what it is, but a lot of these things are considerably less definitive than that. Most used in the sense of "very" sounds very formal to me (or perhaps "most formal" :)), and I'm sure very is more common in AmE, but that doesn't mean the usage of the two is differentiated enough to constitute a clear AmE-BE difference. It might be more of a formality or generational thing. Do younger people in Britain really say "most important" that much more often than younger people in America?

    Maybe, but maybe not. I do use "most" to mean "very" sometimes. I use "very" more often, but "most" in this sense is still definitely part of my day-to-day vocabulary, and I think that's true for a lot of people.

    Embonpoint said:
    I'm sorry but BE and AE are completely different languages. Take a top British editor in any domain--a newspaper, a publishing house etc. and sit that person down with a person of similar caliber from the United States. Give them a text to edit. It would be impossible for them to agree on anything, unless of course it was decided in advance whether the text should be written in BE or AE.
    This is something of an exaggeration. They would in fact agree on almost everything important - basic grammar, syntax, and most spelling and punctuation. Where they'd disagree is on the spelling of a few words and the definitions of a few words - oh, and whether the comma goes inside or outside the quotes. Most of us can watch movies and shows and read books written by someone who speaks another variety of English with very little difficulty in understanding them (and most of the misunderstandings involve differences in accent rather than syntax or vocabulary), so obviously AmE and BE - and Austrailian English and Canadian English, etc., etc., etc. - are the same language. There're just variations, that's all. My husband, who is only so-so at deciphering accents, has far more trouble with a Deep South accent than he does with most British accents, and we live only a day's drive from the Deep South.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Most important is indeed extremely widely used in AE. However, as Ewie notes, Thomas is misunderstanding the way it is used. Most in this context does not mean very. It means most ie. the most important of the things I am listing. For example:

    In order to comment with authority on American English, one must speak regularly to Americans, spend time in the U.S. and most important, be a native speaker of American English.

    I think you need to address the argument, Embonpoint. How do you explain those AE ngrams, for instance?
     
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    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    I do think we - and I include myself here - are perhaps a bit quick to attribute personal or regional differences to "Oh, that must be an AmE/BE difference." Sometimes that's exactly what it is, but a lot of these things are considerably less definitive than that. Most used in the sense of "very" sounds very formal to me (or perhaps "most formal" :)), and I'm sure very is more common in AmE, but that doesn't mean the usage of the two is differentiated enough to constitute a clear AmE-BE difference. It might be more of a formality or generational thing. Do younger people in Britain really say "most important" that much more often than younger people in America?

    Maybe, but maybe not. I do use "most" to mean "very" sometimes. I use "very" more often, but "most" in this sense is still definitely part of my day-to-day vocabulary, and I think that's true for a lot of people.

    It's wrong to say that AmE and BE are "completely different languages." Most of us can watch movies and shows and read books written by someone who speaks another variety of English with very little difficulty in understanding them (and most of the misunderstandings involve differences in accent rather than syntax or vocabulary), so obviously AmE and BE - and Austrailian English and Canadian English, etc., etc., etc. - are the same language. There're just variations, that's all. My husband, who is only so-so at disciphering accents, has far more trouble with a Deep South accent than he does with most British accents, and we live only a day's drive from the Deep South.
    JustKate can you please give an example of how you would use most to mean very in AE?
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    I don't think AmE and BrE are all that far apart here. To me saying "the" most important implies that this person or thing is #1 and on the absolute top of the list. Saying "a" most important means that it is very important and among the most important people or things. "A most important" seems slightly musty but perfectly understandable and in use.
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    Sure, Embonpoint. When I'd use it is when my meaning isn't merely "very" but "very, very." But remember that this isn't the way I'd always say these things, or even how I often say these things. It's just how I'd say them when I want to sound formal:
    You are most welcome. I say "You are very welcome" more often but "most welcome" feels pretty natural to me as well.
    It is most likely a combination of factors that led to ____ winning the election. Here "most" feels far more natural than "very," for some reason that I cannot determine. Maybe it's because it could be interpreted here to be either a superlative or another way to say "very"? Or maybe because "most" sounds better than "very" when it's combined with "likely"?
    It is most gratifying to see this response to my latest masterpiece. I haven't actually produced any masterpieces, as far as I know, but if and when I do, I think I will be "most gratified" rather than "very gratified."
     
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    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    Thanks JustKate!

    It is most likely a combination of factors that led to ____ winning the election.
    Here "most" feels far more natural than "very," for some reason that I cannot determine. I would say this too, but to me it means literally most. The most likely explanation for the phenomenon is that the cause was a combination of factors.

    It is most gratifying to see this response to my latest masterpiece.
    You are most welcome.

    This is very interesting. I have only ever heard one American person say most welcome- a very warm sweet friend who is a major anglophile and history buff. I certainly might say most welcome myself, but only in a sense of fun and overt formality.

    Sorry, Thomas, I'm not going to respond for the reasons I've discussed in a PM. Learners can choose to listen to British people on their opinions of AE. Or they can listen to native American speakers in this thread, including JustKate who has a different perspective than I do but who made a valuable addition to this thread.
     
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