January 02, 2005

Near? Not even close

From William Safire's 1/2/2005 On Language column:

''You have ruled out tax cuts,'' a reporter said to the president, ''and no cuts in benefits for the retired and the near retired.'' Then came the semantic zinger: ''What, in your mind, is 'near retired'?''

Bush half-answered that with a reference to ''our seniors,'' but let me deal with the dropping of the adverbial -ly and the overuse of near as a combining form. It became controversial with near miss, a nonsensical version of near thing; some of us patiently but uselessly pointed out that the writer meant ''near hit.'' Near miss has since entrenched itself as an idiom. (Idioms is idioms, and I could care less.) The abovementioned Vlad the Impaler refers to Russian speakers in the nations that broke away from the Soviet Union as the near abroad. And now we have Bush's near retired, presumably but not decidedly people approaching their 60's. Two paragraphs back, today's column was near finished. The compound nouns are chasing the adverbs out of the language.

Safire may well be right to flag an uptick in near -- even if it's based on only three phrases encountered over several years -- but his analysis is, well... Since I'm fond of defending Safire from my fellow linguists, I'll put it like this: Safire manages to fit four major analytic errors into 129 words, while simultaneously dissing the President of Russia and describing a press conference Q & A. You have to admit that the man has talent.

First, the phrase near miss has nothing to do with "dropping of the adverbial -ly". It involves a sense of near glossed by the OED as "Close to a goal, target, or object, or a perceived model", and supported with citations from 1530 onward. Since miss is a noun in this phrase, it should be modified by an adjective, not an adverb. I doubt that any competent speaker of English has ever been tempted to use a phrase like "whew, that was a nearly miss!". The case of the near abroad is slightly less clear, since abroad is not normally used as a noun, but the structure is clearly that of a noun phrase, and so near is probably an adjective here as well.

Second, the English word near, without -ly, has in any case been serving as an adverb since the time of Beowulf. The OED describes some of the options like this:

In purely adverbial use. Freq. with noun or noun phrase as complement (in dative in Old English). (When used with complement near can be analysed as a preposition.)

Geoff Pullum and CGEL would put this differently: like most English prepositions, near can be used either transitively (with a noun-phrase complement) or intransitively (without a complement).

Some of the old adverbial/prepositional uses of near are obsolete:

1533 J. HEYWOOD Mery Play 653 Stand styll, drab, I say, and come no nere.
a1616 SHAKESPEARE Macb. (1623) II. iii. 139 The neere in blood, the neerer bloody.
1485 MALORY Morte Darthur III. xiii. f. 58v, Her arme was sore brysed and nere she swouned for payne.

but many are now merely informal

1673 J. RAY Observ. Journey Low-countries 8 At near an hundred foot depth they met with a Bed or Floor of Sand.
1719 D. DEFOE Life Robinson Crusoe 269 It cost us near a Fortnight's Time.
1770 S. FOOTE Lame Lover III. 69 The knight is..very near drunk.
1836 T. C. HALIBURTON Clockmaker 1st Ser. xii. 99 It's near about the prettiest sight I know of.
1951 S. H. BELL December Bride II. xvi. 169 That woman near killed me! I was stooned for days after it!
1995 J. BANVILLE Athena 113 One of them gave the security guard a belt of a hammer and damn near killed him.
1990 G. G. LIDDY Monkey Handlers xv. 241 ‘That got that little pigster triangular folding bayonet?’ asked Saul. ‘Right... Ain't so little. Near nine inches long.’

or perfectly normal in all registers

1955 E. BOWEN World of Love ii. 46 She had gone on to make much of the rescued dress..finally hanging it near her window.
1941 J. AGEE & W. EVANS Let us now praise Famous Men (1988) 26 The land..was speckled near and far with nearly identical two-room shacks.

Finally, Safire's little tag-line about how "[t]he compound nouns are chasing the adverbs out of the language" sums things up nicely by missing three targets at once: there are no compound nouns in sight; at least 2/3 of his examples have nothing to do with adverbs; and to the extent that there's a change (in the uses of near or in the overall frequency of adverbs in -ly), it's in the opposite direction.

"Compound nouns" are things like ski lift, hair oil, or channel swimmer. In contrast, "near miss" is a simple phrase made up of an adjective near modifying a noun miss; "near retired" is apparently an adverb (or "intransitive preposition") near modifying an adjective retired (though in the phrase "the retired and the near retired", the adjective is used like a noun meaning "retired ones", as in "only the brave deserve the fair", or "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible", so maybe this is just adjective+noun again), and "near abroad" is probably also a simple adjective+noun construction.

The OED's entries on near suggest that its adverbial/prepositional uses have been fading over the past millenium or so, not gaining -- not that this is really relevant to most of Safire's examples anyway.

As for the frequency of adverbials in -ly, I don't know of any study of recent historical changes in their frequency, so here's a small start. The Atlantic Magazine's web page features links to articles from the magazine's past. The oldest one cited today is William Dean Howells' 1869 review of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. Howells' piece is 1,784 words long, and contains 19 -ly adverbs, or one every 94 words. In the current (Dec. 2004) edition of the same magazine, Lorrie Moore has a review of Alice Munro's Runaway. Moore's review is 1,914 words long, including 40 -ly adverbs, for a rate of one every 48 words. In other words, a 2004 book review in The Atlantic uses -ly adverbs at nearly twice the rate of an 1869 book review of similar length. I didn't count the compound nouns, but whatever they're doing, it's not chasing out the adverbs.

As Bob Dylan put it

You're very well read, it's well known.
But something is happening here and you don't know what it is,
do you, Mr. Jones?

Once again, I blame the linguists for failing to educate the public -- and the pundits -- in the basic techniques of grammatical analysis.

[Update: several people have written to point out that the phrase "near retired" has clearly reminded Safire of a prescriptivist bugaboo along the lines that "near miss should mean 'nearly but not quite a miss'", so that the "correct" term (for an attempt that barely fails to hit) ought to be "near hit." Safire half-agrees with this, but then excuses the common usage on the grounds that "idioms is idioms", rather than on the more straightforward basis that near has an acceptable meaning that would allow "near miss" to mean what it normally does. I recognized this issue but passed over it in silence. Safire might well be right that the normal interpretation of "near miss" is compositionally unexpected, I'm not sure -- either way, this question doesn't help us understand why President Bush might have said "the near retired" rather than "the nearly retired". I guess Safire's point might have been that "near retired" could in principle mean either "barely retired" or "almost retired", but in that case, he confused things from the start by bringing up "the dropping of the adverbial -ly", which is not relevant to any account of "near miss".

Some others have reminded me that near is etymologically a comparative form of nigh -- though the history is complicated, with the OED's discussion beginning"Old English nēah NIGH a. and adv. had a comparative adjective nēarra NAR a., and a comparative adverb nēar (also nēor, nȳr) NEAR adv. ..." This helps explain why (earlier forms of) near have been adverbs since before English was English, but it's not really relevant to Safire's paragraph about "the near retired". ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 2, 2005 12:31 PM