In speech when making comparisons we can say:
- It is far better than
- It’s way better than
- It’s miles better than
- It’s worlds better than
British restaurant food is far/way/miles/worlds better than it used to be 20 years ago.
In the case of miles and far we can invert the order and say
It is better by far
It is better by miles
But the phrase: “It is better by way/worlds” sounds off key.
British restaurant food is better by far/miles than it used to be 20 years ago. YES
British restaurant food is better by way/worlds than it used to be 20 years ago. NO
In the superlative form, the dissonance no longer occurs with way.
Of all the ice-creams we’ve tasted, Italian is by far the best
Of all the ice-creams we’ve tasted, Italian is the best by far
Of all the ice-creams we’ve tasted, Italian is the best by miles tfd
?Of all the ice-creams we’ve tasted, Italian is by way the best (dubious)
But the dissonance continues with “worlds”
Of all the ice-creams we’ve tasted, Italian is by worlds the best NO
The expression “by far/miles/the best” is idiomatic, but the phrase by worlds the best sounds off, and Google agrees, displaying only seven results.
Is it ungrammatical? Is it nonsensical? Can you not measure something in worlds? Well… yes you can, because a person can do something worlds better than another person. How many worlds? Two, three, an infinite number? It doesn’t matter, the term worlds is used as a form of measurement as proven when it is used in the comparative sense.
If neither “by way better” nor “by worlds better” is idiomatic, what happens with way when we use the superlative form in “by way the best”?
I did a little Google research and came up with these figures:
- by far the best
- the best by far
- by way the best
- by miles the best
- the best by miles
- the best by worlds (?)
- by worlds the best (?)
1) Does this type of construction and/or flexibility have a name in linguistics? I.e., It is miles better / it is better by miles
2) Why is “it is better by way/worlds” incorrect but not “it is better by far/miles”?
Many thanks to @Mitch who pointed out that Google’s declared results and the actual instances for “by way the best” were way off by miles—groan.
Consequently, I’ve clicked on the last page for each search and noted down the results. You’ll see that on every last page Google kindly reminds its users: In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the XXX already displayed.
If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.
(I don’t think I’ll ever understand how Google calculates its results…)
In this context, I think there is a semantic difference between worlds, on one hand, and miles, far and perhaps even way, on the other.
When expressing a comparative or superlative using miles and far, you are conveying a linear relationship along a single continuum (although I realize you could add a reference to many factors that contribute to that measure). Using @John Lawler’s analysis of way, being derived from a long way, the approach is the same.
Worlds however, seems to be a categorical rather than a linear comparison. It is a plural, not a possessive, and seems to indicate that there are numerous spheres of experience that are significantly and qualitatively different. The referenced superior one is on a different plane from the competition. The reference to the First, Second and Third World in geopolitical and technical spheres (or New World and Old World) has a similar connotation of vastly differing characteristics, often accompanied by an implied preference (or disdain).
While one can contrast the relative betterness of two worlds, the bestness is more elusive since the existence of numerous non-linear spheres conveys at least potentially infinite numbers of possibilities, and, at least theoretically, there may be other worlds yet to be compared, that may exceed the present example.
And surely each of us goes through this cosmological analysis as we mentally compose our excited utterance acknowledging that your question is worlds better than my most recent one, and maybe is the best this year by far, but it is not the best by worlds (although it may be the world’s best [but that means something else altogether]).