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“At least” and “at the least”, are they identical? Or, do they have different connotations? Or, do they depend on contexts?
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'At the least' tends to be used in more formal language. 'His (prison) sentence should be three years at the least.' 'He should get three years at least.'
"At the least" conjures up about 338,000 results when you type it (in quotes) into Google's search engine. Try to 'Google' "in the least" yields 623,000 results. Of course, you can attribute whatever significance that you would like to it.
PS. "in least"- 33,800, "at least"- 15,500,000 (!!!)
PPS. Dictionary.com provides a few working definitions for each of the terms for which I searched. Noteworthy, it mentioned: "Least is often used with the, as if a noun."
Example of "at the least:"
If you don't think you can be friendly to him after he did that, at the least you ought not be mean to him.
Answer to the posted question:
I believe that it is a difference in connotation. "At least" is an expression of speech signifying, "though something else may be the case, thankfully this is not the case." "At the least" carries the more literal meaning, "if not more, certainly this much." The second connotation is also the technically syntactically correct one.
I can't think of an example using "at the least". Are you perhaps thinking of "in the least"?
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