We are often expected to complete tasks immediately. Sometimes we cannot do what someone asks right away, but we mean to do it as soon as possible. In these cases, we have to give a realistic timeline while reassuring the person we will do what they need.
It is incorrect to say “at earliest” to tell others that something will be done as soon as possible. You must use either “the” or a pronoun to complete the idea. Instead of “at earliest,” you could say, “I will finish that by tomorrow morning at the earliest,” to tell others you will do something as soon as possible.
What Does “At Earliest” Mean?
“At earliest” is incorrect; you should not use it without adding a pronoun or “the” in the middle. If someone says this by mistake, what he or she really means is that they will do something as soon as possible.
The word “at” is a preposition with many functions. In the case of “at the earliest,” it means something happening on or near a particular time (source).
“Earliest” is a superlative of “early.” This means it is a comparative adjective (source). Since “early” means the not-too-distant future, “earliest” means the closest time possible to the moment you are speaking (source).
As discussed above, “at earliest” is incorrect, so you must add “the” or a pronoun in the middle to correct it. The word you add to the center of “at earliest” depends on the context.
Since “earliest” is a superlative of early, it implies a specific time. Since specific objects need “the” as a preceding article, you must always use “at the earliest” in a sentence with enough context to tell when the “earliest” time is.
For this article, we will focus on adding “the” to the middle to ensure the phrase is correct as “at the earliest.” When you string these words together, “at” is connected to “the earliest,” so you are saying that something will happen at the soonest possible moment in time, and you cannot do it before that moment (source).
If you ask someone to do something, you can add the pronoun “your.” For more information on using “your” between “at” and “earliest,” check out our article Is It Correct to Say “At Your Earliest Convenience”? If you are referring to someone else who must complete something, you might add “his” or “her” instead.
How Do You Use “At Earliest”?
You cannot use “at earliest” without adding “the” or a pronoun in the middle. However, when you add “the,” you may use “at the earliest” to tell others that something will happen as soon as possible, but no sooner than that.
Sometimes people want something completed immediately, and you cannot do what they ask right then. In this instance, you can say:
- I can complete that by Friday at the earliest.
This lets them know that you will complete the task as soon as possible but no sooner than the specified time. Unfortunately, it also leaves open the door to finishing the task later than the earliest possible time specified.
When Can You Use “At Earliest”?
You cannot use “at earliest” in any context. You can, however, use “at the earliest” in formal or informal settings to reassure others that something will happen as soon as possible. You might also use “at the earliest” to set realistic expectations about when something will happen.
Since you can use “at the earliest” in both formal and informal settings, you might use it at home with your parents or siblings. For example, if your parents have asked you to complete a chore, but you have homework to complete first, you might say, “I will get to that chore by 8:00 at the earliest.”
Sometimes at school, many assignments are due close together, and you might realize you need more time to complete them. If this is the case, you might ask for an extension, telling your teacher that you can complete the assignment in one week at the earliest.
At school, you might also have a group project to complete. You might say, “I can do my part by Wednesday at the earliest,” to let them know when they can expect you to complete your portion of the work.
Just as you can use “at the earliest” with people you know well, you can also use it in formal settings like work. If you have clients that want you to complete something, you need to set realistic expectations about when it will happen. You can give them a specific date followed by “at the earliest” to create deadlines.
- I will finish editing this video by Monday morning at the earliest.
You also may have to tell your boss when you can complete a task. For example, you might say, “I can have that presentation completed by next month at the earliest.” This reassures your boss that you will get the job done as soon as possible.
When Not to Use “At Earliest”
Since “at the earliest” is the correct way to express that something will happen as soon as possible, you should never use “at earliest.”
If you want to use “at the earliest,” it is essential to remember it emphasizes that something will happen as soon as it can, so you shouldn’t use it when something does not need to happen soon.
You also do not use “at the earliest” to discuss a regularly scheduled event, like a celebration, a festival, or a holiday. So, for example, you do not need to say that Christmas will happen on December 25th at the earliest.
You also do not need to use “at the earliest” if there is no rush to do something. So, for example, if your boss doesn’t require you to complete something soon, you do not need to tell them it will be done by a particular time “at the earliest.” Instead, you can simply tell them you will do the job.
Using “At Earliest” in a Full Sentence
When you use “at the earliest” (not “at earliest”) in a full sentence, it comes after the soonest time possible is said. “At the earliest” is not a complete thought and needs context to make sense. This context is the specific time by which something can happen.
“At the earliest” is an idiom; however, because it begins with “at” (a preposition of time), it is also a prepositional phrase. The word or phrase it complements comes before the preposition because “earliest” connects to the specific time given. See the examples below to learn how and where it fits into a full sentence.
- This will require research; I can finish the report by tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.
- I have a ton of homework this week, so I can clean my room by Friday at the earliest.
- I have two tests to study for this week, so I can do my part by Monday at the earliest.
- Jen is busy right now, but she can answer your question by Tuesday at the earliest.
- Our customer service department will contact you in five days at the earliest.
In the examples above, “at the earliest” is at the end of the sentence. It comes after the information about the earliest time. It also comes after the contextual information about why the time given is the soonest time something can happen. The following examples show where else you can place “at the earliest” in a sentence.
- I can complete this by tomorrow afternoon at the earliest since it requires research.
- I can finish my part by Monday at the earliest because I have two tests this week.
- I can clean my room by Friday at the earliest since I have so much homework.
- Jen can answer your question by Tuesday at the earliest because she is busy.
These examples still place “at the earliest” after the specific time that something can happen, but they give the context of why afterward. You can do this because the prepositional phrase complements the time. Notice that providing the context after creates a compound sentence using a conjunction.
Also, notice that we did not include the last example from the first set with the second set. This is because it does not explain why the customer service department will not get back to you any sooner than five days.
What Can you Use Instead of “At Earliest”?
Instead of “at earliest,” you can use “at the earliest” to reassure someone that something will happen as soon as possible. You can also use the specific time or date, saying, “I will start this on Friday afternoon.”
You can also use these alternatives:
- As fast as possible
- As soon as permitted
- As soon as possible
- As soon as I can
- As soon as we are able to
- As quickly as possible
- At the earliest time/date
- At the first opportunity
- In the shortest time possible
Sometimes we only need to let others know that something will happen quickly. In these cases, you could tell them something will happen:
- In a matter of hours/days/weeks/months
Prepositions are words that give information about direction, location, or where something is in relation to something else (source). A prepositional phrase is a group of words that starts with a preposition. The prepositional phrase ends with the complement or the object connected to the preposition (source).
Prepositional phrases are vital because they modify, giving more information and making things easier to understand. For example, you might say, “Pass me the pencil sitting beside the desk.” The prepositional phrase “beside the desk” tells you exactly where the pencil is.
Some common prepositions are:
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For more information on prepositional phrases, check out our article Is It Correct to Say “In The Meantime”?
When you need to let someone know something will happen as soon as it possibly can, it is never acceptable to say “at earliest.” Instead, you must say “at the earliest” to ensure you are using correct grammar.
Remember that “earliest” connects to a specific time, and you need to add “the” and the time. With this tip, you will get it right each time.