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I've run into both plimalboniĝi and malpliboniĝi and as far as I'm concerned they both mean deteriorate or become worse. Or is there a difference?

As suggested, the distinction might be related to that between la malplej juna and la plej maljuna. However, I personally don't understand how. If it's a difference in emphasis, what parts are emphasised differently?

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    It's a difference in emphasis. See also this question. esperanto.stackexchange.com/questions/2041/… – Tomaso Alexander Nov 12 '16 at 22:50
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    I think the emphasis question is not quite answered there. I'd actually be interested to know about how this is understood. English analogues might carry certain subtleties, but do these translate? Should one even expect most people to understand the difference (if there is any)? – Jiri Lebl Nov 14 '16 at 6:50
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They both show the same downward movement on the goodness scale, but with a different starting point. You could translate them both into English as to deteriorate, with some loss of information.

plimalboniĝi - iĝi pli malbona - to get from bad to worse. It already rained, now the wind started and it's even worse.

malpliboniĝi - iĝi malpli bona - to get from good to less good. It's a sunny day, but now the wind started and it's not that nice anymore.

There's a difference between constructions with pli and those with plej.

Plej is a superlative, so we're always taking about one value on a scale, which has to be either the lower or upper extreme.

Pli is a comparative, and talks about two values: the starting point of the comparison, and the point which compares to it.

plimal* and malpli* both situate the compared value lower than the starting point, but imply that the starting point of the comparison was in the lower half, or the upper half, respectively.

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