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I often hear on TVB shows that people say 最多 in a context when they mean to say, "at the very least?" For instance, something like, "At the very least, I'll take you to dinner tomorrow for being late."

Why is this?

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Not just Cantonese. This is applicable to Mandarin too. –  Question Overflow Feb 27 at 8:13
    
OK, any explanation why this is? –  Crashalot Feb 27 at 8:14
    
I have absolutely no idea too :) –  Question Overflow Feb 27 at 8:18
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What's the Chinese translation of your example? –  user58955 Feb 27 at 8:18
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It could be translated to "at most". At most i could only bring you to dinner tomorrow. –  sel Feb 27 at 9:13

5 Answers 5

Consider it this way: If your offer and his expectation from you are at two opposite ends, then the most you can offer only meets the least he has expected, or even less.

So the perspective(point of view) affects the use of "most" and "least" -- quite subtle. To make a specific case clear, we need the vivid context.

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This heavily depends on the situation and the tone of the speaker. But in general, the speaker is either asking for something/help, or willing to gift something to listener because listener is unpleasant.

It is not like "I will only treat you dinner tomorrow at most", but "I will treat you a dinner tomorrow, please do me a favor", or "You look sad, I could treat you a dinner tomorrow".

I just found out an easy way to distinguish between them, is to listen if it is "我最多" or "最多我":

我最多請你食飯㗎喳
I could only treat you a dinner at most.

最多我請返你食飯啦
I will treat you a dinner tomorrow~

The most difficult thing in Cantonese is the emotional particles. Most of the sentences will include particles at the end and represent our attitude and emotion. There are a lot of them but they are only 1-3 characters so it is very easy to be confused. I suggest you to ask your Hong Konger friends about it or you can ask me too.

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I think you maybe have understanding issues.

最多 does not mean "at least". It means at the most.

I honestly have no idea why someone who provided you the best answer from user3992 is having negative points but his answer is correct.

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In Vietnamese, 最多 means at most, upper limit. And 最少 means at least. Not sure why in Cantonese.

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It means "at most". Cause I believe Chinese people's nature is to do as less as possible, so we say

A: 你可以帮我做完这件事无?
B: 可以! 我做这件事可以拿到乜嘢?
A: 最多,我可以请你吃饭. 

A: Can you help me with something?
B: What will I get out of this?
A: I can, at most, treat you to dinner. 

"At least" in contrast we use for if someone declines our favor.

A: 你帮我好多, 我可以用乜嘢方法报答你无?
B: 毋使!
A: 至少 ,我应该请你吃饭.

A: You helped me so much, how can I repay you?
B: No need to.
A: At the very least, I should treat you to dinner. 

Edit:It's a perspective problem. It's usually from the speaker's perspective, not the listener's.

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It's more natural to say 至少 or (最)起码 instead of 最少. –  user58955 Feb 27 at 20:17
    
I agree with @user3992 that it means "at most", "in the best condition", "the most I can give". –  j5shi Feb 28 at 0:32
    
I totally disagree with this answer. When someone say "最多,我请你吃饭" to me for doing him a favour, I would take it that the person would really treat me to a meal, not anything lesser. –  Question Overflow Feb 28 at 1:38
    
@user58955 Agreed. I use both dialects so much that I sometimes use one in the other when writing. –  user3992 Feb 28 at 3:05
    
Interesting. I have never heard hong konger talking cantonese like that, are they conversations in mainland country? –  008 Mar 3 at 0:44

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