“Least,” “Less,” “More,” and “Most”

By Mark Nichol

The adjectives least, less, more, and most present difficulties for writers when the words are paired with other adjectives: Should hyphens be employed? And what about when little, much, and similar terms are involved?

Generally, do not hyphenate such constructions. The following examples are all correct:

“She bought the least expensive shampoo.”

“I’ve never heard a less interesting story.”

“That wasn’t the most regrettable part.”

“We have a more likely explanation.”

But use these words cautiously in such sentences. For example, “He made several more successful efforts” is ambiguous: Does it mean that the person added a few successful efforts to his record of previous successful ones, or that the person’s efforts were more successful than previous ones? Some writers choose to hyphenate “more successful” when appropriate in such a context, but such a strategy leads to inconsistency when the hyphen is omitted in a similar but unambiguous statement. “He made several additional successful efforts” or “He made several efforts that were more successful,” respectively, clarifies the writer’s intent without making exceptions.

Very is another problematic term. Most writers likely consider it obvious that no hyphen belongs in “John held up a very full bucket,” but very stands alone even when it modifies a hyphenated phrasal adjective, as in “They chose three very well-liked students.”

But compare these conventions with the custom for such words as little, much, seldom, and often. These words, all of which except often can be adjectives or adverbs, serve the latter function when they precede an adjective and a noun — and in this case, they require a hyphen. (That’s counterintuitive, because adjectives are often hyphenated to a following word, while adverbs rarely are.)

Here are some examples:

“Mary spoke about a little-understood aspect of the animal’s behavior.”

“He explained a much-misunderstood phenomenon.”

“The seldom-seen plant is found in only one place.”

“The project was plagued by interventions with often-inconclusive results.”

(As with phrasal adjectives, these word pairs are not hyphenated after the noun. For example, “Mary spoke about an aspect of the animal’s behavior that is little understood.”)

Note this exception: “The somewhat subjective report omitted some important details.”

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8 Responses to ““Least,” “Less,” “More,” and “Most””

  • John White

    >seldom, and often. These words, all of which except “often,” can be adjectives or adverbs

    “Seldom” as an adjective? Example, please.

  • Greg

    What about ages, as in, “She is a four-year-old prodigy”? Or in a phrase like, “He was one of those love-’em-and-leave-’em kinda guys”? Have I done it correctly? Btw, love your daily email!

  • Dale A. Wood

    In http://www.Dictionary.com “seldom” is listed as having a secondary use as an adjective – but no example is given.

    I have never seen “seldom” used as an adjective in North American English.
    Perhaps is it sometimes used as such in Briton, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, etc. I have seen that in those dialects, sometimes people do not distinguish clearly between adjectives and adverbs — not the way that we do in North America (the United States AND Canada, in case you are confused).

    Maybe they would say, “That is a kind of a roadrunner that is a seldom one.” (I just happened to be thinking about roadrunners this morning.) That is definitely not American English.

    I don’t know too much about South African English, but among South Africans working in the United States, I have noticed that their vocabulary and grammar is very similar to the American usage. Could this be because of our common roots in Dutch? (and its influence on our language). Hundreds of thousands of Dutch** people settled in South Africa and created Afrikaans, and hundreds of thousands of others settled in America in Colonial times, especially in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. However, don’t forget the Dutchmen who came to the United States and settled in nearly all of the states of the North, the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains.

    **Remember that before the 1840s, the Netherlands included Holland, the Flemish area of Belgium, Luxembourg, and some neighboring areas. The people from all of those were Dutch because they spoke the Dutch language.

  • Dale A. Wood

    For an article titled “Least”, “Less”, “More”, and “Most”, I thought that this one might be about contrasting those terms with “fewer”, “fewest”, “great”, and “greatest”.

    This is a subject that many people nowadays cannot cope with or master. There is a distinction concerning countable items and noncountable substances like liquids, flour, sand, dust, etc. This is not something trivial, but rather this is something that has been present in the Indo-Eurpean languages (including English!) for tens of thousands of years. In the mother Indo-European language, it probably extends back hundreds of thousands of years.

    Please write an article to cover this carefully.

    When it comes to countable things like people, the rigtht phrases include “few”, “fewer”, “fewest”, “great number of”, “greater number of”, “greatest number of”. Phrases like “least amount”, “most amount” most certainly do not apply to people, animals, apples, arrows, ears of corn, cars, airplanes, etc.

    When it comes to uncountable substances like water, milk, gasoline, beer, flour, etc., then you use the appropriate adjectives:
    little, less, least, much, more, most. Please write an article to cover this carefully.

    Truly, I make these distinctions on automatic pilot without even thinking about them because they were the way that I was raised and respected writers like Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Longfellow, Twain, Kipling, Welles, Churchill, Samuel Eliot Morison, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and Carl Sagan, and the translators of Jules Verne have always done so. They probably did it on automatic pilot, too, because that is the way that our language IS. It is fundamental.
    It also helps that my mother was a high school English teacher, and that my father is well-educated, too.

    How is it that younger people don’t get it branded into their brains? Well, they just don’t READ to begin with.

    Dale

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    I briefly questioned why seldom can be an adjective but its antonym, often, can’t, but I didn’t dwell on it. But I can’t think of any example, though I found this one online: “A weekend without a drop of rain is a seldom occurrence in Vancouver.” (The source, however, advises using a synonym — in this case, uncommon.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Greg:

    Your use of hyphens in those examples is correct. Thanks for your note!

  • Oliver Lawrence

    I can assure Dale that no one in Briton [sic] would say “That is a kind of a roadrunner that is a seldom one.”

    And I’m not sure where he gets the idea that US English is clearer than UK English (which also is no more a “dialect” than the US variant is) on adjectives and adverbs:

    – On your side of the pond, I gather you use “likely” to mean both “probable” and “probably”, whereas for us it means only the former.

    – Similarly, “a couple” is a noun phrase in UK English (“a couple of days”), not an adjective (“a couple days”); similarly for days of the week (“I’m going on Monday” vs “I’m going Monday”).

  • Genise Caruso

    If rarely, hardly, etc. are proper words, why is there no such word as seldomly?

    So, if I wanted to say,”This award was rarely given to . . .,” but wanted to use “seldom” instead of rarely, why isn’t, “This award was seldomly given….,” correct? Saying, “This award was seldom given to ….,” doesn’t sound correct either, so what is right?

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