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Most Of vs The Most

"Most" confuses people, because it has two meanings. First, it can mean "more than 50% of [something]", as in "most of my jelly beans are red" or "most Americans support legalization of marijuana."But it can also mean "more than any other group", as in "China has the most people of any country in the world" or "most Americans voted for Joe Biden in 2020"; in fact only two-thirds of Americans voted at all and Biden received slightly more than half of those, making his total closer to 30% than 50%.

These both seems like valid uses of the word "most", but if you're not careful, the distinction gets lost and you can make big mistakes. The difference is something like "most of" = ">50%", compared to "the most" = "more than any other in the game", though in common parlance the language isn't always precise. If most of the country agrees on some topic or votes for the same person, then there is a sense of broad agreement; if the most people prefer one option over all others, then we might be extremely fragmented (e.g. 10% could be the highest vote total).

Let's use a different example. The "most of" / "the most" distinction gets flattened in certain kinds of polls, where the question will give only two responses when there are others possible.


"DO YOU PREFER X OR Y?" Well, I actually prefer Z... "NO DEAL. CHOOSE X OR Y." So you choose X, and in the end the result makes it look like X has majority support, when in fact it merely had the most support out of the options given.

Wait, come to think of it, this is the election example again! The two-party system is exactly set up to flatten the most down to most of. If everyone Does Their Civic Duty and votes for the lesser of two evils, that lesser of two evils gets to say something truly wild: "Most Americans want me as their president." That has actually never happened, for any president ever, because voter turnout is typically low and the margin is typically small [1].

Getting away from politics, here is a personal example: I used to tell my now-ex girlfriend, "You are the most important person in the world to me." This was actually the correct way to say it ("you are the most important"), but because I was young and stupid, I actually acted as though I meant it the other way ("you have most of the importance"). The latter is deeply problematic, and can lead you to do stupid things for love; in my particular case, I lost friends and opportunities, and neglected goals that were important to me, because I mistook one most for the other. I almost chose not to go to graduate school out of fear it would strain my relationship, which would have been the worst decision of my life.

If your partner holds 51% (most of) of the importance in your life, you should logically be willing to sacrifice any (and every) other part of your life for them; the sum total of all other important things is still less than theirs. This is a VERY BAD situation to be in with anything in your life. Your partner, your job, your dream, it can be more important than anything else, and still be fungible. It can the most important, and still be something you trade off against, holding a lot of weight but not most of it.


[1] The closest a president has ever been is about 42% of the population in 1868 by Ulysses S. Grant. Just multiply the "voter turnout" column by the "popular vote %" column.

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