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From the dictionary I gather that 优先 by itself means "priority" and so 优先级 means "level of priority".

In a phrase such as 高优先级,or 最高优先级,is the 级 necessary to sound correct, or is it an optional "stylistic" element, as in English where "highest priority" is the same as "highest level of priority"?

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Unlike English, (简)优先/(繁)優先 is an adjective while (简)优先级/(繁)優先級 is a noun.

1. (简)这个项目优先级最高。
   (繁)這個項目優先級最高。

If you want to use an adjective then the expression will be like

2. (简)这个项目是最高优先的。(所以……)
   (繁)這個項目是最高優先的。(所以……)

You may notice a small difference in meaning, the first one is often used as response or a single sentence. The second is NOT very usually used as only a single sentence, but you can still use it as a single when the 所以 is obvious.

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I don't think 优先 is an adjective but a verb. E.g. 女士优先 cannot be rewritten as 女士是优先; Your example #2 also complies to the rule 'verb + 的 = adjective'. –  NS.X. Feb 14 '13 at 19:14
    
@NS.X. In my opinion, 女士优先 is an idiom where 优先 is still an adjective, but it can also be understood as a verb. 也许是形容词直接当作动词来用了吧,和古汉语常见的词类活用一个道理。 –  Mike Manilone Feb 14 '13 at 20:09
    
Both are possible actually. There is no need to limit a compound to just one part of speech. –  deutschZuid Feb 14 '13 at 20:38
    
@NS.X. The example#2 is not 'verb+的'. I noticed that "sth 是 adj" sounds weird, "sth 是 adj 的" sounds better. So I think 是 can be only used between two nouns, "adj+的=noun" is the rule. Maybe this is also a regional problem. –  Mike Manilone Feb 14 '13 at 20:51
    
@MikeManilone I think you're right, it's blurry in Chinese. 动词作定/状语 and 形容词动用 are both very common, too common to make a clear distinction in many cases. –  NS.X. Feb 14 '13 at 21:12
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