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The words nearly and almost seem to be interchangeable to me. I can't think of any instance when one can be used where the other cannot.

eg:

  • I almost fell
  • I nearly fell

Are there any circumstances where this is not possible and if so, what is the reason?

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There could be several situations where one would be preferable over the other, and some where one is appropriate and one isn't. See usage examples. Devoid of context, the words are quite interchangeable, yes. –  Kris Feb 2 '14 at 14:03
    

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I almost hesitate to [tell you] - about 44,600 results in Google Books
I nearly hesitate to say - 5 results

...that there certainly are contexts where only one word is valid/likely to be used....

OP very nearly missed [the point] - about 16,100 results
He very almost missed it - no written instances


As to the reason for such marked differences in "acceptability", I think with the first pair it's because idiomatically we often use almost to indicate that the words following aren't quite to be taken literally. The second pair seems to suggest nearly can be qualified by other modifiers, whereas almost can't.

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Excellent examples. I could only manage 'The Nearly Man'. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 2 '14 at 15:55
1  
You felt almost triumphant there :) –  mplungjan Feb 2 '14 at 16:53
1  
@mplungjan: In which context I think one could make out a case for there being a semantic distinction between "I was nearly triumphant" and "I was almost triumphant". The former being more likely to be understood as meaning I came close to winning, but didn't quite make it*, whereas the latter might be understood as I felt an emotion similar to 'triumphalism', but that's not exactly the right word. I might well have actually "won" in the second version, but that's unlikely in the first version. –  FumbleFingers Feb 2 '14 at 17:08

More examples:

  1. I almost never travel by bus. There are almost no apples on the tree this year (you can't use nearly in these sentences).
  2. My mobile rang so often, I nearly threw it in the river (I was tempted to, but I didn't). You could use almost here, but it sounds rather odd. Nearly is better.

I'm not sure where this website is based. I am in South-East England and speak "standard" British English.

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Welcome to English Language & Usage @Caroline. It doesn't really matter where the website is "based"; it's members are world-wide and speak many different versions of English. Sometimes it matters, often not. Enjoy the differences you will encounter :-) –  andy256 Dec 15 '14 at 10:22

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