Language Poll: The Most Threshold

Not prompted by anything specific, but something I’ve occasionally wondered about: what’s the threshold for “most”? Thus, a poll:

I know I tend to use “most” to mean something considerably more than just 51%, but I’m not sure how widely that’s shared. When you say that “most” of some category of things have some property, do you mean a simple majority, or some kind of supermajority?

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew
    September 7, 2010

    I voted for “At least 50%”, but it should’ve been “More than 50%”. Exactly 50% would be half, but any more than that is most.

  2. #2 onymous
    September 7, 2010

    There was extensive discussion of this on Language Log recently.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    September 7, 2010

    For some reason I’m not seeing this poll (but earlier today I saw the poll you did for Labor Day, so I’m not sure what’s causing the problem).

    On the topic at hand: There are two uses for “most” in English. One is, “A has the most X,” in which only a plurality is required (elections with more than two candidates are the most obvious example). The other is, “Most X have property Y,” and in that case a supermajority is required because the statement implies that any X lacking property Y are exceptional. I can’t think of an example where a simple majority but not a plurality would be required (note that if there are two candidates the correct word is “more”, not “most”).

    If you should happen to visit the German-speaking part of Switzerland, “most” is the name of a delicious apple-derived drink, not quite apple juice (“saft”) but not quite cider either. I definitely recommend it, and I think SteelyKid would probably approve as well.

  4. #4 marciepooh
    September 7, 2010

    I can’t get the poll to load but I’d say well over 50%. Technically 50.000001% would be ‘most’ but I’d be more likely to say ‘majority’ in that case. Somewhere around 2/3 I might start calling it ‘most’.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    September 7, 2010

    I don’t know why the poll won’t load. It won’t even preview at the PollDaddy site.

    Grumble, mutter, grump.

  6. #6 Markk
    September 7, 2010

    I can’t see poll but I never even considered anything other than more than 50%. In fact it is quite interesting to me that people think otherwise. 50.0001% is most for me. I can’t remember anyone using it in a way that wasn’t similar to that in conversation either, as similar to “the vast majority” or something.

  7. #7 Emory K.
    September 7, 2010

    51% = Majority
    65% = Most
    90% = Vast Majority
    45% = Half-vast Majority (There are a lot of these.)

  8. #8 Sili
    September 7, 2010

    Not prompted by anything specific

    ?! (and references therein.)

  9. #9 Elizabeth
    September 7, 2010

    I have an obsolete browser that doesn’t do polls. Sorry. Most of your readers’ difficulties with the poll are probably due to some other reason, but I have no way to know for sure.

    My own threshold is ‘greater than 75% but less than 100%’, because I when I use the word most there is an express or implied but not all that follows on its heels. I equate most with nearly all, and so my threshold is much higher than a simple majority.

  10. #10 Wilson
    September 7, 2010

    I couldn’t see the poll here, but I got to it on its home site and voted.

    I voted for ‘at least 50%”, though, like Matthew, I’d have preferred ‘more than 50%’, as 50% itself is ‘half’ and I would never use ‘most’ to describe it.

    However, I only voted for that based on the wording of the poll: that “minimum percentage” you stipulated. In general usage, I would normally use ‘most’ to mean probably about 75% or more.

    Technically, I see ‘most’ as denoting a simple majority, but for me at least, it has the connotation of more than that. For proportions closer to half (but still in the majority), I would use descriptions like “[just] over half”.

  11. #11 Thony C.
    September 7, 2010

    f you should happen to visit the German-speaking part of Switzerland, “most” is the name of a delicious apple-derived drink, not quite apple juice (“saft”) but not quite cider either. I definitely recommend it, and I think SteelyKid would probably approve as well.

    As “Most” is alcoholic I don’t really think that it is suitable for SteelyKid.

  12. #12 Clay B
    September 7, 2010

    More than half.

  13. #13 stripey_cat
    September 7, 2010

    Eric @3, do you know if “most” is etymologically linked to English “must” in the sense of pre-fermented juice?

    For the main poll, I think I need an “it varies with context” button. In a context where more than half is a meaningful distinction, then most can just mean >50%; if on the other hand you’re trying to describe normal properties, then you’re looking at a higher percentage.

  14. #14 Katherine
    September 7, 2010

    Depends on how many in the group. If “Most X do Y.” is talking about a group of X that is maybe 10 X, I’d expect the number of X that do Y to be at least 8. If “Most X do Y.” is talking about a group of X that is over 1000 X, then a bit over 50% is fine to use most. Especially if out of the other 45% of X, 5% do Z, 5% do A, 5% do B etc. Not so much if you say “Most of the people in the US are women.” when it’s certainly over 50%, but the other main distinguishable group is nearly as large.

    Hope that made sense. I voted for “over 50%”.

  15. #15 Thony C.
    September 8, 2010

    …do you know if “most” is etymologically linked to English “must” in the sense of pre-fermented juice?

    It is but at least in the western part of Germany where “most” is a widespread traditional drink it is usually fermented.

  16. #16 Matt McIrvin
    September 8, 2010

    I don’t have any problem with using “most” to mean 50% + 1, but in contexts where the distinction between a large and a small majority is important, I would take care to characterize the numbers more precisely.

    I have learned from political media that anything over 27% is “the American people”. See also “the lurkers support me in email”.

  17. #17 Sili
    September 8, 2010

    Oookay. No idea what happened to my link up there:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2512

    Proper linguists dealing with “most”.

  18. #18 Natalia
    September 16, 2010

    Most to me is more than 68% (1 sigma). I thought most would go for that or 95% or 99%, would they not?