A professor of linguistics has estimated what "most" really means.
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."
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.
Making Sense of the Research
This study might sound like it's completely unnecessary. After all, even a three-year-old can use the word "most" correctly. But understanding it in conversation isn't the same thing as scientifically quantifying it—meaning putting it in numerical terms. What's more, scientists often investigate everyday assumptions that people make, and sometimes find out they're not quite true. For linguists—scientists who study language—understanding the precise meaning of a word is important to studying how it's used.
Arguably, the word "most" could mean anything from 51 to 100 percent. And sometimes it's used to describe a slim majority; for example, a Senator might argue that "most Americans" support her position if a poll indicates that 54 percent do. But would that statement really match up to how we understand "most"? Or would such a statement be misleading, even if it's not intentionally deceptive?
To find out, Ariel's team recruited about sixty native English speakers from several different English-speaking countries, including the United States, England, and Australia. They didn't ask them point-blank, "What does 'most' mean to you?" because their answer to such an abstract question might not reflect how they actually understand "most" in conversation. Instead, they presented the volunteers with short stories, containing phrases like, "Most of the students come from the city," or "More than half of the groups chose pizza over hot dogs." At the end of each story, they asked the volunteers to estimate the percentage of the students that came from the city, groups that chose pizza, and so on.
They found that people very consistently estimated "most" to be between 80 and 95 percent, no matter what the context, or the speaker's country of origin. "More than half," on the other hand, was assumed to mean a smaller majority, like 55 percent, 60 percent, or 70 percent. This suggests that "most" does have a universal, specific meaning in English, and a meaning that can't be applied to just any majority.
Ariel says she wasn't too surprised by the findings, since the idea of a simple majority has become important only in the last century or two, with the rise of large-scale democracy. But it means that saying "most" when you just mean "a majority" can confuse your audience. Whether some people might want to do that intentionally is another question.
Now try and answer these questions:
- Why was this study conducted?
- What value did the researchers arrive at for "most"?
- Why do you think they studied only native English speakers, rather than people who learned English as a second language, and why did they include speakers from several different English-speaking countries?
- Suppose Australians estimated "most" to mean 80 to 95 percent, but Americans defined it as 65 to 95 percent. How would you interpret that finding? What further research would it suggest?
You may want to check out the January 29, 2010 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: sleeping birds, sperm wars, looking for water on distant planets, and the value of "most."