Grammar Usage

Superlatively speaking

Q: Why do people say “most well” when “best” would sound better? They do this with phrases like “well educated,” “well read,” etc. Doesn’t it sound better to say someone is “the best educated,” not “the most well educated”?

A: In a phrase like “well educated,” the word “well” is a comparative adverb. And the superlative form of that phrase would be “best educated.” But “most well educated” is another option and is not grammatically incorrect.

Why do people sometimes prefer “most well educated” to “best educated”?

We think this happens because certain comparative phrases (“well educated,” “well known,” “well read,” “well meaning,” “well deserved,” and others) have become so firmly entrenched that they resist alteration.

A reporter might write, for instance, that a political candidate was “the most well spoken of the three and the most well received.” The phrases “best spoken” and “best received” might seem unnatural here.

At a cookout we probably wouldn’t say, “The piece in the middle is the best done.” We’d call it “the most well done.” And a biographer might describe a good deed as “the most well-meant gesture he had ever made.” In this case, “best-meant” wouldn’t sound quite right.

The Oxford English Dictionary has quit a few citations that use “most well” in this way.

For example, in Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), Thomas Hughes wrote about boys “whose parsing and construing resisted the most well-meant shoves.”

And a 1935 cookbook described a recipe as “one of the most well known of all Belgian dishes.” Most of the other citations involve “most well known.”

Of course, examples with “best” as the adverb part of the phrase vastly outnumber those with “most well.”

We speak of “best-kept secrets,” “best-loved pets,” “best-equipped hospitals,” “best-laid plans,” and so forth.

And as you say, there are times when “best educated” and “best read” might sound better than the versions with “most well.” English is a flexible language and it allows us to make judgments.

Finally, a note about hyphens in compound modifiers that include “well” and “best.”

The phrase is usually hyphenated before a noun (“They were well-behaved students”), but not after a noun or pronoun (“They were well behaved”).

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