A researcher from Tel Aviv University's Department of Linguistics has revealed the exact meaning of the commonly used word, 'most.
Prof. Mira Ariel, who conducted the groundbreaking new linguistic study, has said that the research "is quite shocking for the linguistics world".
"I'm looking at the nature of language and communication and the boundaries that exist in our conventional linguistic codes. If I say to someone, 'I've told you 100 times not to do that,' what does '100 times' really mean? I intend to convey 'a lot,' not literally '100 times.' Such interpretations are contextually determined and can change over time," said Ariel.
Academic linguists have traditionally agreed that when we use the word "most" in English, we usually mean anything from 51 to 99 percent of given group of people or collection of objects.
"Some linguists have argued that the word 'most' includes the 100% value as well, and that the meaning of 'most' is identical to that of 'more than half.' My study has proved them wrong," said Ariel.
The researchers worked with 60 volunteers from English-speaking countries including Australia, Britain and America, and presented each candidate with a dialogue, which included a reference to "most," then asked them to choose an appropriate response (one out of two provided for them).
"We didn't directly ask them about how they interpreted the word 'most,' but based on the preferred responses, we were able to draw conclusions regarding the classical theory in the field," said Ariel.
The study found that when people use the word "most," they don't usually mean the whole range of 51-99 percent.
The common interpretation is much narrower, understood as a measurement of 80 to 95 percent of a sample - whether that sample is of people in a room, cookies in a jar, or witnesses to an accident.
Ariel cautioned that 80-95 percent is valid today but could shift over the next 100 years, for example.
"That's the nature of language and communication. It changes in the span of a few centuries," as words evolve over time said Ariel.
"'Most' as a word came to mean "majority" only recently. Before democracy, we had feudal lords, kings and tribes, and the notion of "most" referred to who had the lion's share of a given resource - 40 percent, 30 percent or even 20 percent," she explained.
"Today, 'most' clearly has come to signify a majority - any number over 50 out of a hundred. But it wasn't always that way. A two-party democracy could have introduced the new idea that 'most' is something more than 50 percent," she added.
The study will be published in Defining Pragmatics.