Submitted by Dyske  •  May 14, 2009

One of the most...

In one of the discussions here, Brian W. tells me that the following sentence is wrong:

“This is one of the most common errors people make…”

He says it should be: “One of the more common…”

He explains:

Proper use of ‘most’ requires the size of the set in which the subject is a member: “one of the 10 most.” Without a numeric qualifier, all but the last are potentially included in the set “one of the most.” That (unfortunately) makes it as meaningful as “up to 10… or more!”

Now, is this a grammatical issue or stylistic issue? I see “one of the most” being used quite often.

As a side note, in Japanese, “one of the most” would be an oxymoron because the concept of “most” implies that it is at the top of the list, that is, there is only one thing that could be “most” or “best”. I remember feeling awkward about the phrase “one of the most” when I was first learning English.

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How do we determine what the rules are? As with any other field of study, we determine what the rules are by looking at the relevant evidence. Part of the relevant evidence has to be usage. Below I have quoted some writers using the phrase "one of the most" - I could find many more examples. These writers are generally regarded as some of the best writers in English. They presumably knew what they were doing. If this phrase is incorrect, why do so many good writers use it? If our theory of grammar forbids this phrase, how useful a theory is it?

Another part of the evidence is opinion of usage commentators. Again, are there any usage books that forbid this phrase?

The satisfaction of prevailing on one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain to be her husband might then have rested in its proper place.
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It was one of the most exasperating attributes of Bounderby, that he not only sang his own praises but stimulated other men to sing them.
- Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flower-pot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.
- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

it will be one of the most benevolent acts you ever performed.
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

I think he is one of the most resolute men I ever saw - Bram Stoker, Dracula

'it's one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle--to get one's head cut off.'
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

In the sperm fishery, this is perhaps one of the most remarkable incidents in all the business of whaling.
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Mr. Dodsley this year brought out his _Preceptor_, one of the most valuable books for the improvement of young minds that has appeared in any language
- Boswell, Life of Johnson Vol 1

the dispute was one of the most interesting disputes in the world
- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy


Her long golden hair hung down about her face and shoulders, her complexion was exquisite, and her smile completed one of the most romantic-looking heads, set off as it was by the bright sun behind it, which I had ever beheld.
- Lord Byron, letter to Mr Ellice


The observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice, and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it.
- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals


"'One of the most precious public possessions of the empire,' said I.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The sun was just setting, and the Clock Tower and the Houses of Parliament rose against one of the most peaceful skies it is possible to imagine
- HG Wells, War of the Worlds


One of the most annoying half hours of the first fortnight occurred in Los Angeles, when an unhappy waiter brought her a tomato stuffed with chicken salad instead of celery.
- F Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

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Boy, I wish I had time to really weigh in on this, but I am compelled to make some quick comments. This is getting just plain silly. First of all, as John said, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with ambiguity. Language is loaded with it. It's the very basis of most poetry, literature, and art. Usually, ambiguity is resolved purely by the context. As long as it doesn't actively interfere with successful comprehension, it's not a problem (it still isn't grammatically incorrect; it's a matter of style).

In any case, far too many words are being thrown around here incorrectly. "One of the most" is not ambiguous in any way. It is imprecise but not ambiguous. They're two different concepts. There is nothing grammatically or contextually incorrect about being imprecise. If I say "I'm eating some chicken", that isn't incorrect. I am not obliged to say "I am eating 3-1/4 ounces of chicken." There is no grammatical rule or even a social contract that dictates what level of detail I have to give in any statement. I suppose some of you think the word "some" should never be used in English because it doesn't connote an exact quantity? Nonsense. Any logical objection to "one of the most" based on imprecision or ambiguity would equally apply to "one of the more." In fact, this mode of thinking would suggest that qualitative discourse about anything is somehow "not allowed". This is ridiculous. Furthermore, "one of the most" and "one of the more" don't mean the same thing. Qualitatively and in this context, "more" is further down the totem pole of exclusivity.

While we're at it, all sorts of examples have been claimed to be bad syntax. These claims are poorly formed. They should be claiming bad semantics, not bad syntax. Truth be told, most of the "bad" examples are perfectly fine, both semantically and syntactically. Regardless, please get the words right.

The objections towards "one of the most" are mostly misguided. If there is any issue at all, it would be the one that Dyske brought up. Some (few) people object to the use of superlatives in a wider encompassing fashion. The claim is that there can be only one "best", etc. This doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny, but that's for another discussion. Also, most can mean "a large majority of". It doesn't have to mean "THE most". Any other objections about quantity, ambiguity, logic, mathematics, etc., are just a red herring.

It's also disingenuous to argue a prescriptive viewpoint over a descriptive one as if the descriptive one didn't even exist. It seems to be rather ignorant, especially as modern linguistics is pretty much based on descriptivism (mind you, personally, I lean towards prescriptivism, myself).

Gee, I guess this turned into more than a few comments. I just couldn't help myself.

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"comprehensibility is not remotely associated with assessing the accuracy of syntax or word meaning"

This sounds like the "nothing is relevant" theory of grammar. Comprehensibility has to have some bearing on our theory of grammar, otherwise our theory of grammar is like an ideal, that exists in some fixed form regardless of how the language is used.

Are there any usage books that proscribe "one of the most"?

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I gotta go with Brian W.!

It is true, it is comprehensible.
But so is "I'm going to go lay down." (Should be "lie")
So is "I haven't done nothin'." (Double negatives invert the intended meaning.)
So is "My house is comprised of rooms." ("Comprise" is not a synonym of "compose".)
So is "I seen him yesterday." ("I saw..." or "I had seen...")
So is "Him and me went there." (Saying "Him went there," and "Me went there." Should be "He and I went there."

I'm not trying to scold anyone--please don't take it that way.

I AM however trying to make the point as strongly as possible that comprehensibility is not remotely associated with assessing the accuracy of syntax or word meaning.

I am listening to this thread with interest, however...

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Saying a specific quality (comprehensibility) is not relevant is really not the same as asserting a universal (nothing is relevant).

For example, if a lot of people say, "I am going to go lay down," it has no bearing on the fact that they have used an objective verb where a subjective verb is required, syntactically.

It appears to me that the theme of this site is "what are the rules?" The rules are not changed when a statement that violates the rules is comprehensible...

Comprehensibilty is suitable for contemplation of some things, but not in the contemplation of accurate syntax. Accurate syntax is virtually set in stone. (I say <i>virtually</i>, because it <i>does</i> shift over time, but the shift is so slow that the experience for individual people is that of being actually set in stone.)

Comprehensilility is a valuable goal, if that standard has been eluding you (the generic "you..."). I'm not opposed to it in any way. I only maintain that it is not a measure of proper syntax.

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<blockquote>How do we determine what the rules are?</blockquote>
Much of language is philosophy/mathematics. The things we say have pretty specific mental structures associated with them. We hve concepts like "sentence fragment" because a senetence fragment violates the rules of the minimum number of elements (and their types) necessary to convey that which a sentence is to convey—a complete thought.

So some of the rules are determined by analyzing whether the task the utterance was to convey was in fact conveyed.

Some areas of language are personal language choices. Some are not.

But it seems to me that asking questions like the quote at the top is implying that the paradigm that legitimately applies to <i>some</i> areas automatically applies to all areas. Of course, that is an application of reductionism, a logical fallacy.


<blockquote>Part of the relevant evidence has to be usage.</blockquote>
This is true in some cases, but not in all. That means that it is relevant evidence in the areas where it is relevant, but it is not relevant evidence in areas where it is <i>not</i> relevant.

Let me set an analysis. Opinion in some cases is relevant evidence. It is virtually the most important evidence in a demographics study or a survey. But opinion carries exactly zero weight as evidence in the question of whether it is true or not that 2 + 2 = 5.

And, as I said before, usage pressure changes language rules very slowly, though admitedly it does exert functional pressure.

<blockquote>These writers are generally regarded as some of the best (that would be “<i>better</i> writers” ;-] ) writers in English. They presumably knew what they were doing. If this phrase is incorrect, why do so many good writers use it? If our theory of grammar forbids this phrase, how useful a theory is it?</blockquote>

Writers are lauded by the emotion they can evoke, the complexity of their plots, ad infinitim. They are not considered expert writers on the basis of their understanding of syntax and language theory. Some really good writers have a horrible grasp of these things.

I am sure you can find examples of highly renown authors who misuse lay/lie/laid, further/farther, compose/comprise, assure/ensure/insure, aggravate/irritate/antagonize, alright (a nonstandard abbreviation)/all right, preventive/preventative, can not/cannot, bad/badly, continual/continuous, would have/had, tortuous/torturous, sit/set, parameter/perimeter (as in “outside the parameters”, and on and on.

I also know that sometimes authors choose constructions they know full well violate grammar rules because they are more effective at construction the picture they are painting, "poetic license." For instance, I am sure you will be able to find occurences in the writings of the authors you cited of using split infinitives; I do this myself for effect often. I realize full well when I do that I am doing so, but I do so anyway to make my point. That does not make split infinitives acceptable examples of proper grammar—they violate the rules.

Sometimes, saying "One of the more..." instead of "One of the most..." can insert a hint of properness that harms the flow of the narrative. It is still a syntax violation.

So, I grant you, it is a commonly used construction. Yet I assert that it is a violation of grammar. The two situations can co-exist.

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Brian W said:
"So, I grant you, it is a commonly used construction. Yet I assert that it is a violation of grammar. The two situations can co-exist."

It is in no way a violation of grammar. Certainly not in the way linguists use the term "grammar" and hardly even in the broadest sense of the term. The issue is one of semantics or meaning.

And the grammar of a language is the way it is used. If something is as common as "one the most" it cannot possibly be bad grammar. Any so-called rule of grammar that is contrary to what a significant majority of native speakers actually write and say is not a true grammar rule at all. There are over 3000 million hits for "one of the most" on Google. Quite apart from that anyone with an ear for the language can tell "one of the most/best" is standard English. If you are going to be this pedantic, you are going to end up dismissing three quarters of the language.

For example, is "you" used as a singular with a plural verb -- as it always is -- bad grammar? It runs counter to the normal "rules". Shouldn't we say, if speaking to one person, "you is right", rather than "you are right?

My point is that common usage overrides the rules.

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This issue isn't in MWDEU and I can't find any online grammar sites that discuss it. In my opinion "one of the most" is completely comprehensible and there's nothing wrong with it.

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So you're saying that "one of the tallest" is ambiguous between "the tallest of the 5 shortest people" and "the tallest of all 100 people"? Sure, but language is full of ambiguity. "I read the book on the chair" is ambiguous: is the book on the chair or am I on the chair? Ambiguous is not the same as incorrect.

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This has been most interesting.

I think the problem stems from in the fact that "most" may be used in either a singular or a plural sense:

Jane has the most friends.
Most people like Jane.

The phrase "one of the most" may be justified as referring to the plural sense of "most:"

Jane is one of the most liked (people).

That statement has a different meaning than "Jane is one of the more liked people."

John cites many instances of "one of the most" from "some of the best" writers. That's right: "some of the best." Not "some of the better," which could be taken to mean "above average," but the cream of the crop. The meaning is clear, even if the grammar is obscure (but justified, none the less).

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In reply to Nemo's comments (June 2013), you might perhaps consider applying for a sub-editor position at the Economist. Here's the opening sentence of an article published in 2012:
“One of the more surprising growth industries to have taken off during the current period of economic downturn and austerity has been the happiness industry”
and here's the link:
http://www.economist.com/blogs/feastandfamine/2...
Your comment “One of the (comparative) is always wrong. It's always one of the (superlative)." is probably one of the more erroneous I’ve come across.

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Hey! I think I’ve cracked it. Both structures (one of the + superlative and one of the + comparative) are correct but have slightly different meanings. The above post by Goofy (May 15th 2009) shows that one of the + superlative has been used for a very long time indeed. The one of the + comparative form is, I would say, much more recent. If you Google it you’ll find dozens of examples from various sources, some reliable (The New Yorker …), others less so. Here are a few:
• One of the more widely accepted definitions of a native speaker is someone who was born in a particular country and was raised to speak the language of that …
• One of the more interesting aspects of having a proper, honest-to-god 9-5 job (with these awesome guys) is that I find myself being way more selective with what …
• It's considered one of the more advanced titanosaurs ever found. One of the things that made it unique, aside from its tremendous size, was it's ...
• He said: “I have seen a number of cases of abuses of people's rights in the family courts, but this has to be one of the more extreme. “It involves ...
• Richard McClintock, a Latin professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, looked up one of the more obscure Latin words, consectetur, from a Lorem Ipsum ...
• One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet lately involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam ...
• The Grand Challenge proved to be one of the more humbling events in automotive history. Its sole consolation lay in shared misery. None of ...
I think you’ll agree that the use of the comparative diminishes the exceptional nature of the event under discussion. So, “one of the more obscure Latin words …” implies that the word isn’t incredibly obscure, but fairly obscure. Similarly, “One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet lately …” implies that the story isn’t necessarily among the most heart-warming but is pretty heart-warming nonetheless. Voilà!

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I can't believe that anyone these days would say that split infinitives are unacceptable. The so-called split infinitive has never violated any rule of English. Please cite any modern grammar book that says the split infinitive is unacceptable grammar. I suppose you also believe a sentence should never end with a preposition?

"it has no bearing on the fact that they have used an objective verb where a subjective verb is required, syntactically." Objective and subjective verbs?

"One of the world's best writers", "one of the most common errors"...etc, etc. It's risible to suggest that these are bad grammar and even sillier to say they are bad syntax.

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You still have not provided any evidence to support your assertion that "one of the most" is incorrect.

"This is true in some cases, but not in all. That means that it is relevant evidence in the areas where it is relevant, but it is not relevant evidence in areas where it is not relevant."

How can usage be not relevant in discussions of grammar?

I think we have two very different ideas about what grammar is. I think that rules of grammar can be determined by looking at the evidence - how the language is used, and the opinions of usage writers. You seems to think that the rules of grammar are set in stone like mathematics, and how the language is actually used isn't necessarily relevant. Something is right or wrong not because of how it is used, but because you say so.

For each of the usage issues you mention, there is evidence of their use by good writers, and there is disagreement by usage commentators (for overviews of the controversies, see Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage). For instance, the split infinitive. There is a history of elements being placed between "to" and the verb going back to the 1400s. Sometimes the split infinitive is obligatory (http://158.130.17.5/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives...). Also, there is no modern usage book that I am aware of that prohibits the split infinitive.

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OK, let me ask you: In the case of "One of the most," let's say the goup is 100 in size.

So we say, "One of the tallest." The tallest is indicative of a sub group. But how big is it?if you were a member of this 100, and there were 5 shorter than you, are you one of the tallest? Is "the tallest" a group of 95? Would 50 need to be shorter than you?

Now I know that the same questions can be asked with respect to "taller," but shorter is a comparative word, whereas shortest is one with a much more ultimate connotation.

My point in what I have been saying is that logic alone is enough to establish the case I am making, no authority need be cited.

You clearly disagree, but the case against my assertion does not persuade me.

’S been fun though.

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I believe an English teasher would lower a student's grade on a paper if it had an abiguity such as "I read the book on the chair." It "incorrect" in a domain other than syntax, or misusing words ("lay" in place of "lie")

A sentence is defined as a complete thought. The implication is that a sentence conveys a complete thought. "I read the book on the chair" doesn't actually convey a complete thought, due to its ambiguity. So, in my understanding, it is in fact incorrect, just not incorrect syntactically. It is incorrect at a higher level, at the level of making sense.

One of the most--again, to me--is oncorrect because it fails to convey any meaning other than the meaning inferred by the listener. But the purpose of communicating is to make your point, not to say something that allows the listener to come to a conclusion through guesswork.

One of the most, as I said before, being ultimate rather than comparative, implies membership in a set. But the size of the set is not established, leaving the phrase devoid of the minimum clarity I believe is ought to have.

"More" is, by its nature (so to speak), comparative. This allows it to serve acceptably in the phrase "one of the more," though it is true that the size of the set is still undefined.

Just my opinion, from the standpoint of logic -- as I understand it.

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I don't see anything wrong about one of the most ..., one of the best, etc.

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No, Brian W is wrong. I'll use an example of better and best, which can be applied equally to more and most.

In a set group based on criteria there can be "the best thing." In a larger set "the best thing" of smaller sets can form a new set "the best things"(or "those that fits best thing criteria of all finite sets"). This set is finite, and "one of the best things" makes sense.

In a set group based on criteria there can be many subsets of "better things"(i.e. group of things better than non-zero finite members) specifically sets of (n-1) sizes, the largest being the set of (n-1) size including the least. IOW, "one of the better things" means "everything except the least one."


"One of the (comparative)" is always wrong. It's always "one of the (superlative)."

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Not to forget that those who use "one of the better" sound wishy-washy.

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@Nemo - I generally agree with you (I think), but not with "everything except the least one" or your statement that - "One of the (comparative)" is always wrong. It's always "one of the (superlative)."

Not quite. Hairy Scot has already given the example "That is one of your more annoying habits" - Logically, we can divide the person's habits into two groups, one group consisting of his more annoying habits (with a subset of his most annoying habits), and another of his less annoying habits, and 'that' is one of the former.

[Set 1 - his bad habits] [Set 2 - his better habits [Subset - the best ones] ]

There are plenty of examples of this use with "the" on the web - "One of the better Travelodges", i.e. not one of the best, but not one of the bad ones either. "One of the stranger B&Bs I've stayed in" - not exactly one of the strangest, but certainly in the category of stranger ones. Also -"Excellent - but splurge on one of the better rooms if you can". These are all grammatically fine, and have a slightly different meaning to the superlative versions.

And sometimes there can be a difference in nuance:

"One of the best moments in the film was when ..." - it sounds quite a good film.
"One of the better moments of the film was when ..." - it could be a straight comment, but it could also sound as though there weren't too many good moments.

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Well, it depends on what Brian W. means by "wrong". Does he mean 'incorrect', or is this a normative assertion? If he means the sentence is incorrect, his own argument doesn't support that: if the sentence refers to an overall set of 100 errors, then the sentence specifically points to the 99 of them that are most common--the sentence is not incorrect, merely fuzzy, which might be considered 'wrong'. Few, however, would take the sentence literally to mean all but the one least common error; rather, the sentence would commonly be construed to refer to an ill-defined set of very common errors.

The discussion isn't well served by being second hand in this case: did Brian W. say "wrong" or did he say "incorrect"? Or did he simply say what was quoted? If the latter, the semantic discussion must also consider the intended meaning of "Proper". Does 'proper' in this case refer to the formal use of 'most'? The informal use? The mathematical use?

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It's not that hard: A film director makes ten films. His first four films were duds or simply average. Of the later six, three were exceptionally good. Any of those last three could be called "one of his best films". But any of those later six, especially the earlier three, could be called "one of his better films".- "This is certainly one of his better films, but not, perhaps, one of his best".

@PhilMink - I think your last part more or less agrees with my previous comment:

"One of his better films" suggests that they weren't all good.
"One of his best films" doesn't tell us either way whether some were not quite up to scratch.

Here are a few examples where 'one of the more / better' and 'one of the most / best' are used together:

"Once, when I was reporting a story for The New Yorker on Rio’s underworld, he insisted on joining me in one of the city’s more violent favelas, el Complexo de Alemao, for a couple of tense meetings I had with one of Brazil’s most sought-after gangsters. Throughout, David was cool as ice." - Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker 2013

'JEAN-LUC GODARD's "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," which was shown yesterday at the New York Film Festival, is not one of his better films, although the title, I think, is one of his best.' - Renata Adler, New York Times 1968

"Le Masque de fer is one of Henri Decoin's better late films ... Le Masque de fer is by no means one of Henri Decoin's best films but it is nonetheless a highly enjoyable romp" - filmsdefrance.com

" Leszek Balcerowicz (one of the best finance experts in the world). .... The Tusk government is one of the better ones of the 3rd republic." - The Economist - This faithfully reflects the different levels of respect for Balcerowicz and Tusk in Poland.

"While the drawing is one of Google's more conventional doodles in recent times, it's also arguably one of the most beautiful to date" - The Telegraph

"James Taylor is one of the world's greatest guitarists, one of its best songwriters and, if you go for the nasal tone, one of its better singers." - The Times, London - a neat trio of descending compliments

""Though not one of Pearl Jam's more famous hits, "I Am Mine" is one of their most defiant tunes"- about.com

And at Google Books:

"one of the most striking features of this transition is that it took place not during one of the more dramatic episodes of climatic and environmental change within the long time span of the Pleistocene ..." - The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, Barry W. Cunliffe 2001

"One of the more common causes and yet one of the most overdiagnosed aetiologies of forefoot pain is the condition popularly referred to as 'Morton's neuroma' " - An Atlas of Foot and Ankle Surgery, 1998

"Once considered one of the more egalitarian societies, Israel is now one of the most unequal." - Into the Promised Land: Issues Facing the Welfare State, 2001

"By the early 1990s the UK had moved from being one of the more equal European countries to one of the most unequal" - The Blair Effect 2001-5, Anthony Seldon and Dennis Kavanagh, 2005

"One of the more unexpected patterns found in the Census data, and one of the most difficult ..." - The American Archaeologist: A Profile, 1997

"The Theaetetus, though it is one of the most analytical of Plato's dialogues and also, superficially, one of the more discontinuous in its argument ..." - The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy, Bernard Williams, 2009

And one from 1808:

"Among these promiscuous observations, it would be unpardonable to omit iron, which is one of the more constant associates of silex. ... and if we add its wonderful property of magnetism, it seems to be one of the most fertile for the imagination of every philosopher." - The Philosophical Magazine, Alexander Tilloch 1808

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People,

If you don't like "one of the most", what will you say about "a most"?

:)

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I think this graph says it all really: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=on...

It may not be addressed in MWDEU, but Burchfield in the New Fowlers's gives his approval to an example sentence which includes the clause: "one of the deepest and most sensitive studies I've yet read."

And as far as what grammar is, I'm 100% with rmensies.

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Actually, considering that errors is being compared to more than one, it should be most, i.e. splitting infinitives, stranding prepositions, etc. Comparison of three or more things is superlative therefore requires most.

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@Warsaw Will, Feb 8th 2014. Yes, very well put.

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I tend to use both depending on context.

"That is one of your more annoying habits"

"That was one of the most awkward moments in my career"

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Incidentally, there's been one structure that has been bothering at least one linguistics blogger lately:

"It was one of his better films, if not one of his best"

''if not"here can mean "maybe even" or "although not". When spoken, rising or falling intonation at the end would tell which the speaker meant. But on paper, without context, it could go either way.

Even in print, context would sometimes, but not always tell us which was intended. I imagine these two are inclusive:

"A fantastic split-pusher and snowballer, if not one of the best."

"It should no longer be a secret that Chien Noir is one of Kingston's best restaurants, if not one of Canada's best."

This on the other hand isn't, even if only by a small margin:

"If not one of Sheldon's best works, it definitely comes close."

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@Jasper - except few would consider either of your examples as errors. :)

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Yes, I don'r consider those as errors either. But most prescriptivists in the hierarchy do.

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I think it has to do with the fact that most is a superlative and not a comparative, as is more. Adjectives, and adverbs, have three forms: the positive (the base word), the comparative, and the superlative.

Positive: tall, many/much
Comparative: taller, more
Superlative: tallest, most

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Back in the 70s a teacher friend asked her class to write down examples of a variety of "incongruities" common in the use of English.
The list included "hanging prepositons" and "split infinitives".
She received a wide variety of examples of "hanging prepositions", but 35 out of 36 kids listed the same example of a split infinitive.
It was fairly obvious which TV show was their favourite.

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