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Value of Most

February 4, 2010

English speakers agree on a surprisingly narrow numerical value for the word “most.”


Putting a number on "most." I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Words like "most," "some," and "few" may be vague, but we all know what they mean. Or do we? Linguistics professor Mira Ariel, of Tel Aviv University in Israel, decided to find out if people agreed on a numerical value for "most." She presented sixty English speakers from several different countries with little scenarios involving the word "most," or the phrase "more than half."

MIRA ARIEL (Tel Aviv University):
And the question was always how much do you think the speaker meant? And I had all kinds of values there: twenty percent, fifty percent, seventy percent, eighty percent, whatever.

She found that people consistently take "most" to mean 80 to 95 percent – even though one could arguably set the bar much lower. Ariel says it’s important for communicators to understand what they’re implying, whether they’re scientists, advertisers, or politicians. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.