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At Most or At the Most: Which is Correct?

In certain situations, you might need to get the point across of some sort of minimum or maximum. In a conversation, the easiest way to determine a maximum of the topic at hand would be to use the phrase “at most,” which we can also replace with “at the most” in certain circumstances. 

Both “at most” and “at the most” are grammatically correct phrases to use depending on the circumstances surrounding them. One of the main ways to tell whether or not to include the article is by looking at the object the phrase modifies. If the noun following this prepositional phrase must be definite, you should use “the” as well to indicate this placement.

Let’s quickly analyze the different parts of this particular phrase. “At” is a preposition we normally use in reference to location, although, in this particular instance, it refers to a more abstract “place” — some kind of quantification. 

“Most” refers to a limit. Finally, the “the” refers to a definite article, and the object it refers to can indicate whether or not it’s necessary.  

How Do You Use “At Most” in a Sentence? 

Grammarians categorize “at most” and “at the most” as prepositional phrases, meaning they combine a preposition — a directional, non-content based word attached to a noun — and any additional words necessary to complete the modification of an object. 

In this particular case, the object we are modifying is some sort of quantity or amount; therefore, the completed phrase will always be about how much of something you might have (source).

“At most” is a phrase that indicates an upper limit to some kind of quantity. We should use this in a sentence when no other object follows it and, instead, focus on the amount we’ve mentioned.

You should use the phrase when you need to present the maximum amount of whatever you’re measuring. This applies to anything quantifiable — objects, time, and space. For example, it is equally correct to say both “At most, five dogs” and “At most, five minutes.”

Timing and Usage

“At most” is a necessary phrase to use when discussing and determining quantities or dimensions of any sort.  

For example, when you’re trying to set deadlines, you can say that you need a certain project to be done within “at most, three days.” Here are several examples of different ways in which one could use the phrase “at most”:

I wanted to check six books out from the library, but the librarian said I could have five at most.

With a budget of $800 a month, I could afford a one-bedroom place here at most. 

The check-in doesn’t take too long, about an hour at most. 

Even though “at most” requires us to use a quantifiable notion, it doesn’t need to be a physical object. You can use this phrase to describe anything that you can measure. 

Sentence Placement 

The phrase “at most,” just like the majority of prepositional phrases, is very flexible when it comes to where we can use it in the sentence.

There are a variety of grammatically correct placements, and they are all equally valid to use; you can place the phrase at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle, or at the end.

  • At most, teenagers should get 10 hours of sleep.
  • Teenagers should get at most 10 hours of sleep.
  • Teenagers should get 10 hours of sleep at most.

When writing a longer and more complex sentence, you might have to frame “at most” with the correct punctuation. Commas are the easiest way to separate the phrase “at most” from the rest of the sentence, making it easy to place at numerous different points. However, an em-dash can be just as useful. 

This usually occurs when there is a conjunction or a separation of clauses, making the “at most” function as if it were at the beginning of a sentence, as in the example above. 

  • The doctor said I should sleep less — at most, 10 hours. 
  • I’ve been trying to eat healthier and sleep better, at most, 10hours. 

How Do You Use “At the Most” in a Sentence?

You can use “at the most” in essentially every case that you use “‘at most.” In addition to that, “at the most” also has several auxiliary functions that allow us to use it in different contexts. To recap, at its most simple, “at the most” defines an upper limit or maximum to some measurable quantity.

One unique aspect of using “at the most” instead of “at most” is the presence of the definite article, which creates an opportunity to use the phrase in a different construction. This construction allows for the phrase to directly affect the object instead of the measurement.

Mimicking “At Most”

Since the meaning of both “at most” and “at the most” is essentially the same, there is no reason that we cannot use the two phrases interchangeably. Therefore, we can apply most of the examples of using “at most” here.

I wanted to check six books out from the library, but the librarian said I could have five at the most.

With a budget of $800 a month, I could afford a one-bedroom place here at the most. 

The check-in doesn’t take too long, about an hour at the most. 

Though the prepositional phrase here changes from “at most” to “at the most,” the meaning remains the same without losing anything. In the same way, “at the most” can also function in all parts of the sentence — beginning, middle, or end.

The Definite Article 

One can also use “at the most” with nuance — the addition of an object that justifies the use of the definite article even further. 

This leans away from quantification and allows for a qualitative assessment of what this “most” is. It helps when we use it conversationally since it creates more room for subjectivity (source).

Another helpful way to look at this is to think of “at the most” as a superlative. We can use it the same way you would “very” or “extremely” to create a sense of maximalism that isn’t in terms of quantity but, rather, in terms of the fulfillment of some sort of description. Since we use “at” to determine location, we can do this in that context.

  • Hand this in at the most convenient time for you.
  • She held the party at the most beautiful house. 

However, if you take “at” out of the phrase, “the most” goes back to its roots as a general superlative. This is an easy way to see the difference between “at most” and “at the most,” as you cannot take the “at” out of “at most” and have it make sense in similar contexts.

  • The baby has the most adorable smile. 

Alternative Articles 

Beyond just using “the” as the article in the middle of “at most,” one can also insert alternative articles, namely, pronouns. This immediately focuses the sentence on a specific subject, attributing that upper limit to the person rather than the object. 

One can use this structure to create a framework for a subject and replace the generic “most” with any superlative form (source).

  • After the break-up, I saw her at her worst. 
  • When he was speaking, he was at his most comfortable.

How Do You Use “At Least” in a Sentence?

“At least” follows a construction very similar to that of “at most,” except instead of creating a maximum, it creates a minimum. Some form of quantifying object should also follow “at least” from a number to a condition that we can either add to or subtract from. 

When would you need to use “at least”? You should use it when identifying a minimum of something to do or obtain. 

  • Please get at least four eggs for the recipe.
  • You should spend at least an hour a day practicing.
  • I want a house with at least one bedroom.
  • Please keep at least one meter of distance between yourself and your classmates.
Image by Mohammed Hasan via Pixabay.

Similar to “at most,” we can use  “at least” in various parts of a sentence, and we can frame it by punctuation such as commas and em-dashes when in the middle of a complex sentence structure. 

However, “at least” also has another, more colloquial usage mostly presented in dialogue. When we use it as a standalone component of a sentence, it can act as an indicator that the speaker is in some way trying to create a sense of what the “minimal effort” is and pass judgments based on that.

  • At least kick the ball if you want me to put you in the game!
  • Let me at least pay you for your trouble.

“At the Least”

So, does it ever make sense to use “at the least”? Not particularly; although it is technically grammatically correct, there is very little practical use to the phrase, and the uses for “at the most” don’t always transfer. 

However, when using alternative pronouns, phrases like “at her least ___” or “at her ___” with another generic superlative are grammatically correct and can be very useful.

Is “At Most” the Same as “At Least”?

No; in fact, “at most” and “at least” mean the opposite of each other — the former implies a maximum limit and the latter a minimum. 

Although the two of them are entirely different in meaning, they can be interchangeable while still being grammatically correct. Since they are both prepositional phrases of the same construction, we can place them in any part of the sentence, making them the same structurally.

  • She looks at most two years old. > She looks at least two years old. 
  • At most, I should get 10 hours of sleep. > At least I should get 10 hours of sleep.

What Is the Meaning of “At Most One”?

“At most one” is an example of a quantifying phrase using “at most” — by attaching that phrase to the amount “one,” it means that there is a maximum of one; what the maximum is of depends on the object. 

  • You can take at most one donut.

All of the conventions we mentioned prior apply to “at most one,” just as they would apply to any quality measured with this particular prepositional phrase. One of the main differences is that using the phrase “at most one” creates a binary of options — either none or one. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

As opposed to the more open-ended determinations of quantity that are present when we follow the phrase with larger or more abstract measurements, using “at most one” creates a very clear expectation.

Final Thoughts

Both “at most” and “at the most” are grammatically correct phrases, and we can often use them interchangeably. However, while “at the most” can replace most, if not all, instances of “at most,” the same does not apply in reverse. 

This is due to the various auxiliary functions that the definite article brings to the latter. It is also clear to see that “at the most” can act as an intermediary between the plain, superlative “most” and the upper limit marker “at most,” giving it the attributes of both.

On the other hand, while “at least” has functions similar to “at most,” and the two can function interchangeably in terms of structure, there is no “at the least” complement to “at the most.” 

Usually, we use most of these constructions dialogue, as they allow for an open conversation discussing certain parameters — most of the instances in which one would use prepositional phrases like “at most” and “at least” would be in communicating standards or limitations. 

This makes it an excellent construction to use in correspondences, meetings, presentations, and interviews. 

Recipes and other instruction-based pieces of writing will also employ its use quite regularly. However, it will be a much rarer occurrence to find the figurative use of these phrases, such as in creative writing or poetry, though, of course, there are instances in which it will come up.