Usage and Grammar

Q. Hi. My question has to do with whether a new entry in the 17th edition was accidental or deliberate. Paragraph 8.185 includes this sentence: “ ‘Aladdin’ is arguably the most well-known tale in A Thousand and One Nights.” I’m curious to know if this sentence simply slipped through or if Chicago defends the use of “most well-known”? I ask because Philip Corbett, standards editor for the New York Times, ran a blog called After Deadline as a teaching tool to point out grammatical and stylistic missteps that made it to print. He often called out writers for using “most well-known” in place of “best-known”: “The superlative form of the adverb ‘well’ is ‘best.’ So there’s no reason to describe something as ‘the most well-known’—make it ‘the best-known’ ” (After Deadline, August 4, 2008).

A. For newspapers, especially those that are published in print, concision is crucial, so changing “most well-known” to “best-known” as a matter of policy makes good sense. (Nothing compares to After Deadline for its combination of practical, field-tested advice and journalistic wisdom.) But where space is not at such a premium, is “best-known” necessarily an improvement over “most well-known”?

“Well-known” is an established compound; it’s listed in Merriam-Webster (where it’s defined as “fully or widely known”). The meaning of “well-known” is therefore well known (Chicago drops the hyphen for most compound adjectives after the noun). So “the most well-known author” arguably loses just a little by being changed to “the best-known author.” “Best-known” is OK, but it isn’t in Merriam-Webster.

“Well-known” isn’t the only well-known “well-” compound. Consider “well-rounded”: “best-rounded” isn’t a great alternative for “most well-rounded.” And what about “best-heeled”? Some work better than others, so it’s probably best to consider these on a case-by-case basis. And in the case of “most well-known,” our editors apparently chose to leave well enough alone.