Least vs. Lest

By Maeve Maddox

Least, pronounced [LEEST], is the superlative of the adjective little: little, littler, least. It can also function as noun and adverb:

She passed the exam without the least preparation. (adjective)

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (noun)

The person who can least spare it is often the most willing to give others a piece of his mind. (adverb)

Lest, pronounced [LEST], is a conjunction that introduces a clause that expresses something that should be guarded against. Although still used by modern writers and speakers, it has a distinctly literary flavor:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. Matthew 7:6

Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. (Moral to Aesop’s tale of “The Dog and the Shadow.”)

The formulaic phrase “lest we forget” is especially popular at the time of year when a nation honors its military forces and commemorates the slain. Used this way, it means “So we don’t forget,” or “Let us not forget.” For example, this past Memorial Day the phrase appeared on hundreds of websites above photo collections, memoirs, and poems dedicated to the memory of enlisted men and women who gave the supreme sacrifice.

“Lest we forget” is also used as a cautionary expression, warning of disappointment or danger to ensue if something is forgotten:

Lest we forget the past…Buying broken or unfinished games.

Lest We Forget. “Remembering Abbott’s Past”

Lest we forget, child abuse has many forms.

Unfortunately, a great many English speakers are confused about the difference between least and lest–at least when it comes to the phrase “Lest we forget.” A Web search brings up hundreds, perhaps thousands of sites headed by the phrase “Least We Forget.” Here are a few examples that go beyond the three words:

Least we forget in the Twenty First Century

Least we forget the Holocaust. Least we forget Vietnam, Ethiopia, you insert any war you like.

Least we forget what China actually is…

I even found a song title spelled “Least We Forget.”

In conclusion, lest you forget, lest rhymes with west.

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10 Responses to “Least vs. Lest”

  • Curtis

    What happened to ‘littlest’?

  • D.A.W.

    “dedicated to the memory of enlisted men and women who gave the supreme sacrifice.”
    Actually, it should be:
    “dedicated to the memory of OFFICERS and enlisted men and women who gave the supreme sacrifice.”

    To give you some examples, during the conquest of Iwo Jima in 1945 by the U.S. Marines, the highest death rate of any rank in the Marines was that of 2nd lieutenant, and this was followed closely by 1st lieutenant. These Marine officers were killed while they were leading their men in battle against the Japanese. Also, Marine aviators have dangerous duty.

    For a long time in the U.S. Air Force, the Royal Air Force, naval aviation, Marine aviation, and the Royal Canadian Air Force**, nearly everyone killed in combat, or on training missions, was an officer because nearly all of the aviators are officers. These include pilots, navigators, bombardiers, weapons systems officers, radar intercept officers, electronic warfare officers, and antisubmarine warfare officers.

    **In 2011, the aviation branch of the Canadian Forces was given back its old name, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). There is also a Royal Canadian Navy again. These never lost their names: the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Royal Australian Navy.
    As you should know by now (re: Malaysian Air Flight 370 and typhoons hitting the Philippines), the RAAF, RCAF, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S.A.F. carry out vital missions in search & rescue, and in disaster relief, much more often than combat.

    Our Navy’s new slogan of “A Global Force for Good” is no bunch of beans. Just look at the Navy’s hospital ships that went to the relief of Haiti and the Philippines.
    The U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard also do more search and rescue than anything else. If I am ever stranded at sea, the four words that I would want to hear would be “There is the Coast Guard!”

    I had to work in that one about “a bunch of beans!”.

  • Olga Núñez Miret

    A query about the post. The first sentence:
    She passed the exam without the least preparation. Wouldn’t that be two negatives making it into a positive? I’m never quite sure with these types of sentences.

  • D.A.W.

    Hello, Olga Núñez Miret:
    You are quite correct in what you wrote in this case.
    “two negatives making a positive” is exactly what happened, just as in these example words:

    countercounterrevolutionary and
    antianticommunist.

  • D.A.W.

    Sorry, Olga, but your name made me think of Cuba and Fidel Castro. LOL

  • venqax

    @Olga: No, in this case it’s not a double negative. The sentence is saying she passed without even the least amount of preparation;”less than the least” amount meaning none at all. Even the least amount of preparation would have been some; the minimal amount. She didn’t even do that. So the sentence means she passed with no preparation. Least isn’t a negative.

  • Alison

    Actually, least is the superlative of less not little. As in less, lesser, least. Littlest is the superlative of little.

  • Maeve

    Allison,
    According to the OED, “less” is “used as the comparative of ‘little.'” and “least” is “used as the superlative of ‘little’.” We’re both wrong. Should be, “little, less, least.”

  • Maeve

    PS Allison,
    “Lesser” as an adjective, says OED, is now used only attributively:
    “When the lesser of the two scoundrels comes to me.”
    and
    “In special or technical use, opposed to greater”: the Lesser Bear.

  • Rich Wheeler

    I’m stunned that dictionaries recognize littler and littlest. Is there any good reason to classify them as standard terms?

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