The Many Uses of “Best”

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Besides its use as a simple adjective meaning, “of the highest excellence, excelling all others in quality,” the word best serves as other parts of speech and occurs in many English idioms.

As a verb, to best means to get the better of, get an advantage over, outdo; to outreach, outwit, circumvent. “Jack’s wife always bests him at bridge.”

Best can be a noun. “Marilyn wanted nothing but the best for herself and her family.”

As an adverb best modifies a verb. “All the boys are good at drawing faces, but James does it best.”

Here are several common idioms that make use of the word best. The list is by no means exhaustive.

best man: the chief male attendant who stands up for the groom at a wedding. With the advent of same-sex marriage, the term is beginning to lose its gendered meaning.

the best people: people considered better than most, either because they come from old, established families, or because they possess superior moral qualities. “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.” –Ernest Hemingway

best boy: the principal assistant to the chief electrician in a film crew

best seller: what every writer wants to have or to be. The term usually applies to a book or other product, but sometimes it stands for a best-selling author. (Yes, best-selling takes a hyphen.)

second best: next in quality to the first. No one wants to be “second best,” but whether or not it’s a bad thing depends upon who or what is “first best.” For example, in the Forbes list of the richest people in the U.S., Warren Buffett is “second best.” His net worth of a mere $58 billion puts him in second place after Bill Gates. Gates has $72 billion.

to do one’s best and to give it one’s best shot: both expressions mean “to do something to the best of one’s ability,” but they have differing connotations:

“I always try to do my best.” (applicable to any situation)
“I may not have time to pick up the laundry, but I’ll do my best.” (implies that the effort may be futile)
“Everyone else in the contest has more experience, but I’ll give it my best shot.” (the odds of failure are greater than those of success.)

to make the best of it: adjust to a bad situation. “The tornado destroyed our house, but we’ll make the best of it.”

for the best: better than it seems or seemed at the moment. “His bride left him at the altar, but it was for the best because he met and married someone better.”

the best of both worlds: a situation in which you can enjoy two very different things at the same time. “Nina Dobev, who portrays both human Elena and her doppelganger, former vampire Katherine in [ The Vampire Diaries] – said she gets the best of both worlds.”

Some “best” expressions are hyphenated:

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15 thoughts on “The Many Uses of “Best””

  1. Covered, I believe: As a verb, to best means to get the better of, get an advantage over, outdo; to outreach, outwit, circumvent. “Jack’s wife always bests him at bridge.”

  2. Along the lines of “to best”. I have seen (and I think, heard) a verb “to second”, which in contetxt seems to have a similar meaning– i.e. not to come in second, but to beat out someone else and thus render them “second”.

    To second somone one or thing would be to undermine its importance, or to take away its primacy. So, “The captain tried to reorganize the ship, but his efforts were seconded by the admiral” Or, “The entire purpose of having a garage for the car is seconded by filling it with junk and old furntiture.” I can’t find any reference for this usage, but I know it exist. Is it regional, or dialectical, or just erroneous like *supposably* or *agreeance*?

    “Jack’s wife always bests him at bridge.”
    “Jack’s wife seconded his status a winner at bridge.”
    “He was bested by his brother in the race.
    “In trying to win the race, he was seconded by his brother”

    In both cases the implication would be that he was “made to come in second” or was beaten by his wife or brother, NOT that they came in second to him.

    Anyone else ever heard this?

  3. All of these also work – and they are preferred forms – with the word “best” replaced by “well” or “better”, and sometimes “good”.
    These work for attributive adjectives, but the hyphen is not necessary for predicate adjectives.

    best-aimed, best-built, best-bred, best-cooked, best-dressed, best-fed, best-governed, best-grown, best-humored, best-intentioned, best-kept, best-laid, best-made, best-managed, best-meaning, best-meant, best-natured, best-preserved, best-run, BEST-SAID, best-tempered, best-used, BEST-WRITTEN.

    I think that there are at least 100 of these.

    When Maeve wrote “Some ‘best’ expressions are hyphenated:”
    she IMPLIED that her list was the complete list.
    That is not a true fact, because there are many, many more of them.
    Well, the best-made plans of women and beasts – and men.

    It seems that I am continually having to tell people about the implications of what they said or wrote. They usually express ignorance in saying, “I did not imply that.” Then I retort, “You implied it whether you meant to or not.”

    I did have an English teacher in high school who was great at pointing out to us that sentences in English have denotations and connotations. Now I have the impression that millions of people do not know what a connotation is. They live in a world of denotations….


  4. Best of the best! (a questionable expression, at best). Ok, my attempt at humor gets the best of me, but fortunately, it’s not the best of me. Someone best stop me or, at least, best me. All the best to you, Maeve!

  5. @ daw
    You inferred that meaning.

    If you don’t give me an i.e., I will infer an e.g. Another case where specific language use could reduce the potential for reader misunderstanding.

  6. Yes, Preciseedit, you are right.
    A simple “for example” by the writer would have removed all possibility of confusing the reader.

    If someone wrote, “Some of these expressions are hyphenated,” and then gave a list, this means that ALL of the hyphenated ones are included.

    Here is another way of looking at it: the statement
    “Some of these expressions are hyphenated,” implies
    “Some of these expressions are hyphenated, but the rest of them are not.”

    I am also a mathematician as well as an engineer.
    If I wrote, “Here are the single-digit positive integers:
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,” that would be correct.
    If I wrote, “Here are the single-digit positive integers:
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” that would be incorrect.
    There is no way to assume a “for example” from this.

    If I said, “Some of the positive integers are prime numbers,”
    this implies that the rest of the positive integers are NOT prime numbers.


  7. To DAW: I take your point, but your “integer” example is neither parallel to nor adequately reflective of Ms. Maddox’s usage. A more appropriate example would be “Here are some single-digit positive integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.” Nothing wrong with that, and it’s substantively closer to her “Some . . . are hyphenated.” If she had just added “, like this” before the colon, you’d have nary a leg to stand on.

    Granted, one might rigidly infer she was being exhaustive, but anyone with an interest in this Web site and even a rudimentary knowledge of English–in all its vastness–is unlikely to draw such a drastic conclusion from a mere sprinkling of (to me) obvious examples. Surely some responsibility must accrue to the reader as well.

  8. Preciseedit said “Another case where specific language use could reduce the potential for reader misunderstanding,” (including “for example” or “e.g.”) and I do not see any reason to argue with that, as you feel compelled to do, Mr. Radler.

    Engineers like me also like to look at situations in terms of cost-benefit ratios. The cost of including “for example”, or “e.g.”, or “like this” is quite low, yet the cost of misleading or confusing the reader can be quite high.

    Likewise, the cost of including the “serial comma” EVERY TIME is quite low, yet the cost of confusing or misleading the reader can be quite high. The University of Cambridge and many American and Canadian sources had it right.

    Including the “serial comma” every time, on “automatic pilot”, has benefits to the writer, too. He or she does not have to waste the effort on deciding if the serial comma is “necessary” or not.

  9. That is not a true fact, because there are many, many more of them.

    ALL facts are true.

    Well, the best-made plans of women and beasts – and men.
    Or the best-laid plans of mice and men. I like the idea of beasts planning, though.

    Preciseedit: But don’t i.e. and e.g. mean the same thing? Interchangeable? ….KIDDING! Just kidding.. I swear, I couldn’t help it…no self-control here…

  10. This is an untrue statement: “ALL facts are true.”

    1. Some things that people take as facts are mere disinformation.
    People who had contant with communist or fascist regimes know that.

    2. Many things that people take as facts are just provisionally true.
    They are taken to be true until contradictory information (new evidence) comes along.

    3. There are lots of things that are called “facts” by different organizations, but even in the face of contradictory information, the proponents continue to present them as “facts”. I can think of a lot of such organizations, but let me just start with Dianets, Scientology, and the Church of the Flat Earthers.

  11. This makes perfect sense: “not a true fact”,
    because the latter is simply a polite way of saying “a falsehood”.

    “Not a true fact” is also an idiomatic expression that has been in English for centuries. I do not see any reason for someone’s being argumentative about idiomatic expressions. They exist, and people understand what they mean.

  12. There are many things in our Universe that are just provisionally true.

    On the other hand, there are things that are “true facts” because they will never change. They are true by definition. For example:
    2 + 2 = 4; all nontrivial triangles have three sides**;
    and don’t divide by zero because that is meaningless.

    **It is possible to make trivial triangles that are just line segments, and they don’t have any sides. Try a triangle with side of lengths 1, 2, and 3.

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