Sometimes, the world can be disappointing. But when those moments inevitably come, remembering the phrase “at least” helps us to see the bright side of things.
You may have encountered both “at least” and “atleast” at various points in your reading and writing, but one is incorrect.
Writing “atleast,” is a common error that depicts the correct phrase “at least” as a single term. The only proper use is the two-word phrase, “at least,” which is a phrase that combines the preposition “at” and the noun or adverb “least” to mean “at minimum.”
Writing “at least” can raise some questions; why is it “at least” with a space? What does the phrase mean? Does the phrase have any simpler synonyms? You’ll have answers to these questions, and more — just keep reading.
Is “At Least” One Word?
“At least” is not one word. Instead, it is a two-word phrase, and a phrase is a combination of words that make up a part of a complete sentence (source). “At least” cannot stand alone as a single sentence:
Incorrect: At least. My day was getting better.
Correct: At least my day was getting better.
“At least” is a common phrase both in speaking and writing, which means errors in writing, such as the lack of space, spread and are relatively common. You can see a similar situation occur with some compound words. Take a look at “Highschool or High School: Which Is Correct” to learn more.
What Is the Definition of “At Least”?
“At least” is a combination of the preposition “at” and the word “least.” The preposition “at” usually shows the relationship between two things, such as the subject and time, location, measurement, or state of being.
The second word, “least,” can function as a noun, adverb, adjective, determiner, or pronoun. This word is the superlative form of “little” and refers to the value/quantity of something, either stating the amount is minor or lesser than another amount.
I was not the least bit interested. (meaning not even the smallest amount)
She received the least pizza because she was the youngest. (the smallest amount in comparison to others)
Additionally, the phrase “at least” is an idiom (source). This means that it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Idioms are common words or phrases that you can use, but they also have meanings that differ from the terms that make them up (source). Consider the examples below:
- The drama teacher told us to break a leg before we stepped on the stage.
- That exam was a piece of cake.
- We need to finish this tomorrow, come rain or shine.
If we took the sentences above literally, they would be pretty offensive. So, we need to be able to comprehend idioms to conclude their actual meaning.
- Break a leg = wishing someone good luck (usually used in the theater)
- Piece of cake = easy
- Rain or shine = no matter what happens
When it comes to idioms, knowing the meanings of the words that make up the idiom isn’t of much help. Instead, it’s better to understand the interpretation of the idiom on its own.
Defining “At Least”
“At least” has three purposes. In a nutshell, it either refers to a value amount, a small action, or changes the trajectory of a sentence.
The first purpose is the easiest to understand because it has a set formula with a value or measurement before or after the idiom.
- It would cost her at least $25 to get her oil changed.
- I would have to wait at least two weeks for my new ID.
- She swore he was at least six feet tall.
The second purpose is to refer to a small action, essentially requesting someone do a minimal amount of work or put in a minimal amount of effort. For example:
- You don’t need to clean the house, but at least clean your room.
- On days I feel lazy, I at least wash my face and brush my teeth.
- I have to research for at least a year before I can even begin to write my novel.
The phrase “at least” can also change the trajectory of a sentence. That may sound confusing, but it essentially means that you can use it to point out a silver lining or dampen the effect of something.
I mean, I didn’t get many gifts, but at least I had a lot of messages.
I’ve seen Pride and Prejudice 20 times. At least I’ve watched the proposal scene that frequently.
Maybe I was never popular, but at least my friends were one in a million.
How Do You Use “At Least” in a Sentence?
If you want a more in-depth understanding of “at least,” think of it this way: you will use “at least” to indicate the least thing that is correct, guaranteed, tolerable, factual, or beneficial (source). Bear in mind, you can also use it to refer to multiple meanings at once.
Let’s break that down. First, you can use “at least” mid-sentence to correct a previous error in the sentence or written text:
- I broke my leg. At least, that’s what it felt like.
This sentence starts with a definitive statement indicating that the speaker broke their leg. However, using “at least” and stating it was just a feeling implies that the speaker may not have broken their leg but instead refers to hyperbolic pain.
The second way “at least” can be useful is when you use it to refer to a minimum guarantee:
- Go to the park; at least there you’ll get some fresh air.
Here, the speaker says that if you go to the park, you’ll always have a guarantee that you’ll get some fresh air.
You can also use “at least” before a more acceptable scenario, indicating something you might tolerate instead:
- I’d love to travel the world, or at least leave this small town for a couple of weeks.
Another way you can use “at least” is to establish a fact, but one you may not be entirely sure of:
- It took me at least three days to finish off all my work.
This means that the speaker took three or more days to finish off their work. Therefore, any number of days before two is wrong, and any number above three has the potential to be correct.
Writing “At Least” in Math
You’ll also find “at least” similarly in math (source). Take, for example:
- X is at least seven.
This means that X=7 or any value above it. Using math symbols, it would be X ≥ 7*.
Note that the symbol ≥ means “more/greater than or equal to.”
Another common way that you can use “at least” is to indicate a silver lining or something beneficial in a lousy situation or to an otherwise objectionable object.
- It had been a difficult day, but at least it was finally over.
More Practice Using “At Least”
Look at the five sentences below and see if you can figure out the purpose of “at least.”
1. I don’t have much, but at least I still have me.
2. I was at least 15 when I first met my best friend.
3. At least answer all the multiple-choice questions in the exam.
4. My mom said I should call her at least once a week.
5. “I’m a doctor,” at least that’s what I told her mom.
Review the answers below, and see if you understand the above sentences adequately.
1. Beneficial: the writer indicates that they can rely on themselves despite all life’s shortcomings.
2. Factual: This indicates the speaker believes their age was 15 or older when they met their best friend.
3. Tolerable: The speaker indicates that even though it is hard, the addressee should at the minimum answer the multiple-choice questions.
4. Factual: It refers to numbers — the mom says the speaker should call once or more every week.
5. Correction: The speaker says they told someone they were a doctor. However, they likely are not.
What Can You Use Instead of “At Least”?
You may hesitate to use “at least,” either because you’re not comfortable using it or you fear it is too repetitive. To remedy this, seek out a synonym.
What Is a Synonym?
You may have encountered synonyms in your English classes. These are words that share the same or a similar meaning to another word. This means that when writing, these words are often interchangeable, but not always.
- I brewed a cup of hot tea.
- I brewed a cup of warm tea.
In these sentences, the words “hot” and “warm” both refer to the drink’s temperature.
You may be wondering what that has to do with “at least.” The truth is that synonyms aren’t confined to words. Phrases can also have synonyms, particularly “at least.”
Synonyms for “At Least”
There are multiple synonyms for “at least.” When writing, you may adapt the phrase “at least” a little bit using “at the very least/at the least.” This accentuates your point further. Look at the sentences below and see if you agree.
- He could’ve at least brushed his hair before showing up.
- At the very least, he could’ve brushed his hair before showing up.
Another valid synonym is “at the minimum.” You would use this chiefly when “at least” refers to a small action or silver lining.
- At the minimum, do your laundry.
- I may have been rude. But, at the minimum, I was honest.
While the term is comparatively obscure, American English speakers might use leastways/leastwise in place of “at least.” However, you can only use the word leastways when “at least” indicates a correction or a change in intention (source):
- The bedroom was cold, but leastways we had an AC.
- I liked her, leastwise until recently.
Synonyms in Limited Circumstances
A more common synonym would be the adverb “anyway.” This adverb has multiple uses, but it can only substitute “at least” in certain scenarios. You can use this when “at least” stands for “at any rate.”
- I broke my leg. Anyway, that’s what it felt like.
“In any case” can also stand in place of “at least.” However, this is only useful when discussing an aside or a remark that changes the trajectory of a sentence.
That’s why you cannot use it in situations like the second sentence below marked with an ✘ without changing the phrase’s meaning:
- I am stuck at this job for at least the next five years.✔
- I am at this job for, in any case, the next five years.✘
- He is nice. At least that’s what I’ve told others.✔
- He is nice. In any case, that’s what I’ve told others.✔
When writing, just bear in mind that “in any case” cannot always replace “at least” or vice versa. Sometimes the context of the sentence requires one or the other, so if you are uncertain, check a dictionary first.
Another synonym for “at least” is “not less than.” However, you would use this only when “at least” refers to a quantity, value, or measurement.
- I read at least 50 pages before I gave up.✔
- I read no less than 50 pages before I gave up.✔
These synonyms are useful as they can stand in place of “at least” without requiring that you change the order of your sentence, for the most part.
At Least vs. At Most
It’s impossible to research “at least” without coming across “at most.” These two are what we in English know as antonyms — they represent opposing concepts. These phrases do this in two ways:
First, in figurative language, “at most” refers to “at the most,” while “at least” means “at the least.” You can see the difference in the sentence below.
- My friend told me before her party, “at least bring yourself; at most, bring a gift.”
Second, these opposing phrases can refer to the value of something. When you say “at least,” the value/measurement you are speaking about is equal to or more than the written value that follows. When you say “at most,” the value is equal to or less than the written value that follows.
So, think of the sentences:
- Kevin ate at least three cookies.
- Sarah ate at most three cookies.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
These sentences state that Kevin ate three or more cookies while Sarah ate three or fewer.
“At least” is a phrase you’ll find pretty often. Unfortunately, however, errors in usage and spelling are common.
The most common of these is “atleast.” This is an error because “at least” is not a single word but, rather, a phrase and an idiom; remember that an idiom is a type of phrase with a figurative meaning separate from its independent parts.
In either case, if you wish to use “at least,” make sure you are writing it as two words. Plus, if you fear repetition in your writing, try using a synonym.