Best Foot Forward

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Someone who puts their “best foot forward” must, logically, have three or more feet.

Although this is a very common phrase (the title of a 1943 Lucille Ball film, for example) it is, at least for humans, grammatically incorrect.

“Best” is the superlative form of the adjective “good” and superlatives are used to refer to one item from a group of three or more. The comparative form of the adjective – “better” in the case of good – should be used to refer to one item from two. So, the phrase should be “better foot forward” if talking about a biped. Only a creature with three or more feet – a centipede for example – could actually put its “best foot forward”.

The general point applies to all comparative and superlative adjectives. You can’t be the fastest runner in a race of two, for example, only the faster.

Here are some examples of this usage around the web:

There are hopeful signs. On Wednesday he conceded he couldn’t get the economy going again simply by blaming the Democrats, up to now his favorite response to the recession. And he said yesterday that he would run “on my whole record,” suggesting that he may put his best foot forward instead of merely stepping on his opponent’s. – NY Times

The Bears arrived in St. Louis without their best pass rusher — Pernell McPhee stayed home with a knee injury — and yet they left with a convincing TKO of a potent Rams offense. – LA Times

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13 thoughts on “Best Foot Forward”

  1. I just came across your blog today and got lost in it for hours. Instead of commenting 1001 times, I decided to put my better foot forward and thank you for the great info only once.

    You’ve made my sidebar link and will be a blog I return to often to answer those niggling questions.

    Thanks again!

  2. The online Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) offers, ” ‘Put your best foot forward’ is rather an odd saying as it implies you have three or more feet.” That is rather an odd assertion as it implies that language is relentlessly logical and that we should heed grammarians who tinker with expressions that have been in the language for hundreds of years.
    “A more perfect union,” “head over heels in love,” and “I didn’t commit no crime!” are among hundreds of expressions that may be challenged on the grounds of logic. But they mean, unambiguously and in fine historical tradition, “a union closer to perfection,” “my ecstasy has turned the world upside down” and “I’m innocent.”

  3. Henry,

    As with all these grammatical points, I think it’s invaluable to know the grammatically-correct position. Whether you should say “best foot forward” or “better foot forward” depends on what you’re writing. In speech in a work of fiction, for example, “best” would probably be fine (depending on the character.) In, say, a formal letter where you’re trying to display your command of the language, “better” would, surely be, well, better?

  4. Simon,

    I concede at once and without hesitation the prevalence and the value of your position in principle. But about “best foot forward,” I disagree with the application of the principle and with the conclusion that “better foot forward” is the privileged form.

    My argument, based on the history of English, is that for many items there is no “grammatically correct” position; there is only opinion, taste, usage, and appeal to authority. When “best foot forward” came into the language, we had no grammarians, only usage; scholars, therefore, did not argue that the language was flawed — in this example, “illogical.”

    Just as Dryden famously brought shame to the terminal preposition, which he had used throughout his writing, others brought shame to the split infinitive and the double negative, long after those “errors” had been entrenched in the language.

    “Best foot forward,” I would argue, is what Fowler called an “iron-bound idiom,” and in my opinion, when we tamper with it, making it logically consistent, we violate the idiom and display our knowledge of logic at the expense of our modesty.

    I have no emotional investment in grammatical forms; I responded to this issue only to suggest that there is another side to the analysis. Your article certainly provoked thought and drew much deserved praise and agreement from those who responded. Count me among those who praise it but who, nevertheless, disagree with the analysis and the conclusion.

    In the spirit of fellowship and good will and to show appreciation for the work that you have done to provide the analysis of “best foot forward,” I will allow any further criticism of my remarks to stand unopposed. I hope that other critics, for their part, will be as gentle and kind as you were in your note me.

  5. Someone who puts their “best foot forward” must… If there ever was a real battle over using the plural pronoun this way, it has long since been lost. This usage was common even before “his” became politically incorrect and I will confess to having slipped into it myself from time to time. Linguists dismiss people like me as language purists, but to me (and pretty much only me, I’m afraid) this smacks of laziness and sounds ugly. In casual speech, I can accept it but when committing something to paper, surely a writer can take ten seconds to think of a better phrasing. Putting ones “best foot forward” must… uses fewer word and doesn’t introduce any sort of awkwardness to the sentence.

  6. Does this mean that in a wedding party with, for instance, only two groomsmen, the one charged with holding the ring for the groom should be named as the “Better Man” instead of “Best Man”?…

  7. I have to disagree with the assertion that “best” implies “out of three or more”. I’d love to see a reference if you’ve got one.

    To my mind, there’s a fundamental distinction between comparatives and superlatives. As I understand it, “better” and other comparatives are used in relation to a particular option: the left foot is better than the right (for example). On the other hand (foot?), “best” and other superlatives are used in relation to all the other options — regardless of how many “all” may mean. In this case, the left may be both the “better” and the “best” foot!

  8. The site is a gift from heaven for people like us who feel the constant need to better our language. Having swam a while in the vast ocean of the internet looking for guidance, I can say that it is undoubtedly the ‘best’ of the lot…

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