June 14, 2007

Why is "nearly no" nearly not?

The other day, I had one of those grammatical WTF reactions that you sometimes get from a bit of text as it passes by. I didn't make a note at the time, so I'm not sure of the source, but I remember the phrase: "nearly no one". This phrase is obviously OK for some people -- Yahoo News turns up these examples in its current index:

Dr. Feustel is the Canadian astronaut nearly no one in this country knows about.
Everyone wishes to be loved, but in the event, nearly no one can bear it.
But nearly no one called him on it.
So many women with my condition suffer alone, alienated from their own friends, family, partners and doctors by having something that nearly no one can fathom, let alone treat.

But when I read things like this, my reaction is "No, no! It's "almost no one", not "nearly no one"!

Now, if I were the typically careless sort of prescriptivist, I'd assume, without checking, that my reaction is how English is and always has been and ought ever more to be, and I'd proceed to compose an argument about why my preference in this case is justified by logic, history and/or moral hygiene.

But instead, my reaction is to wonder what's really going on.

(There's probably a whole section on this in CGEL, or perhaps a treatment in a 10-year-old issue of NLLT — but I'm in a hotel lobby in Kyoto, and until they come out with a digital version, CGEL is not part of my travel kit. So I'll just throw a few observations at the wall of the global linguistic village, so to speak, and see what sticks.)

First, although lots of competent writers apparently see nothing wrong with "nearly no one", my reaction does have some popular support. In Google's general index, we have

  no one


nearly 27.6K 1.29M
almost 1.06M 1.66M
almost/nearly ratio 38.4 1.29

So with everyone, almost is 30% commoner than nearly -- but with no one, it's 3,840% commoner. Why?

My first thought was that it had to do with the positive versus negative ends of a continuum. But that's not right, because both my intuitions and Google's index show that "nearly empty" and "nearly worthless" are fine:



worthless priceless
nearly 617K 998K 89.6K 572
almost 721K 1.4M 138K 20.1K
almost/nearly ratio 1.17 1.40 1.54 35.1

In fact, the pattern here is in the opposite direction, raising the (additional?) of why "nearly priceless" is so rare in comparison to "almost priceless" (and please, don't bother to tell me that priceless is like unique and shouldn't get any sort of degree modification at all...).

A better guess seems to be that nearly tends be uneasy when asked to modify overtly negative words like no, never and none:



nearly 66.8K 1.95M
almost 1.32M 9.87M
almost/nearly ratio 19.8 5.06


  none of

all of

nearly 20.1K 1.26M
almost 769K 3.42M
almost/nearly ratio 38.3 2.71

But nearly does modify negatives, in the work of what otherwise seem to be entirely competent writers of English:

Thomas nearly never got to ride in his hometown.
Edward has gone through life protecting himself from the drabness of reality with a shield of stories, nearly none of which Will believes.
In fact, the Pirates have nearly no minor league players ready to contribute.

As usual, the more of these examples I read, the better they sound. But still...

In the whole history of English literature as indexed by LION, "nearly no" occurs once in poetry and once in drama.

The poetic hit is in Richard Hugo's The Right Madness on Skye, 1980:

73 Are we on course again? Good. Isle of Skye, right?
74 This the day of my death. Only feigned tears, like I ordered.
75 Make sure the flowers are plastic. Five minutes, remember,
76 piper and drum. Tell the nearly no mourners remaining
77 I was easy to mix up with weather. The weather
78 goes on. Me too, but right now in a deadly stiff line.

The one hit in drama is from a note To The Reader in the back matter of M. G. Lewis's 1798 The Castle Spectre:

To originality of character I make no pretence. Persecuted heroines and conscience-stung villains certainly have made their courtesies and bows to a British audience long before the appearance of "The Castle Spectre;" the Friar and Alice are copies, but very faint ones, from Juliet's Nurse, and Sheridan's Father Paul, and Percy is a mighty pretty-behaved young gentleman with nearly no character at all.

By contrast, "almost no" occurs in 56 poems, 18 dramas, and 46 prose works.

So to sum up, I'm clearly not alone in feeling that nearly doesn't mix with negatives; on the other hand, there seems to be a minority that disagrees. If you think you know what's going on here, please let me know.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 14, 2007 04:06 AM