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Having just had a chat with Em1, I noticed that some words or phrases that mean almost will mean less than when used alone, and other synonyms will mean greater than.

For example, nearly and close to seem to mean less than when used alone:

  • You're nearly 30!
  • You're nearly there.
  • We've close to the required number of participants.

Whereas barely and just seem to mean greater than or equal to:

  • He's barely 18!
  • We've barely enough for breakfast.
  • We've just finished.
  • They'll just be coming over the hill.

If you swap any of the adverbs around then the meaning goes with them. However, if you change the context a little bit then the meaning can switch around:

  • 31 is close to 30.
  • We're just short of the required number.

If we take the over/under question of Em1:

The village is located [almost] 30 km to the south of London.

How can you tell if a synonym for almost means less than or greater than?

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Could you give an example synonym of almost that means greater than? I can't think of one, and the idea of less than is pretty well built into almost. –  Roaring Fish Jul 4 '12 at 10:49
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@RoaringFish - I give 2 in the question: barely and just –  Matt Эллен Jul 4 '12 at 10:52
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Barely is always over, and almost always under. If he 'barely made it', he did make it, but if he 'almost made it' he didn't, so they are not synonyms. Just is a modifier - just under, just over, or just in the right place, so that too is not a synonym of almost. –  Roaring Fish Jul 4 '12 at 10:57
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Approximate is near, as in 'in the proximity of', and can be over or under, so it is still not a synonym for almost. 30.001 is not almost thirty, because almost is under. You cannot be 'almost home' and 'already arrived at home'at the same time. It cannot be 'almost 3 o'clock' when it has already passed 3 0'clock. OED "Very nearly, wellnigh, all but" –  Roaring Fish Jul 4 '12 at 11:19
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Approximately can be over or under. Where it is used in the sense of under, it is can be synonymous to almost ~ "29.9km is almost/approximately 30km" 25.001 seconds may be approximately 25 seconds, but it cannot be almost 25 seconds as 25 seconds has already past. A is 25km from B. If you walk 25.001km, are you almost there? –  Roaring Fish Jul 4 '12 at 12:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is a really complicated question, and the answer is not simple. This phenomenon involves Negation, Quantification, and Metaphor, and that's already too much for a short answer. I'll try, though.

The words in question are called "approximatives" in the trade. They are adverbs of degree, I suppose, if one must put a POS tag on them, and they function to add some precision to quantification. What they mean generally depends on what metaphor they're instantiating.

It's like calculus -- how to describe precisely the experience of approaching some kind of limit in a continuous event or state. Without math. This is not easy, so we use metaphors instead.

There are several kinds of measured continuity that humans naturally experience, leading to several kinds of natural metaphor for humans measuring continuity. They can measure, as it turns out, linear motion (JOURNEY metaphors), or they can measure accumulation (CONTAINER metaphors).

  • Motion metaphors: Personal Experience (LIFE) is Personal Motion (JOURNEY)
    • (There is a directionality to this metaphor, so these all imply not there yet)
    • almost/nearly/practically at the 50-yard line/goal/limit/right age/border
  • Container metaphors: LIFE is Accumulated Memory (CONTAINER)
    • (think a big jar of memories, piling UP as they get MORE -- a vertical linear model)
    • pass/over/under/up to the mark/the top/the time limit/two years/ten million rubles
    • (or think a cupboard full of memories, which may be full or bare)

So, one point is that these are both vectors -- they have a starting state (BEGINNING, EMPTY), they have an ending state (FINISH, FULL), with a continuous range between them, and the directionality is one-way (FORWARD, UPWARD). That means that purely locative phrases like near or close to mean "not yet" only if they're interpreted as directional metaphors; it isn't intrinsic to their meanings.

A second point is that some of these terms are intrinsically negative, and can trigger NPIs like ever. Let me just say that this does not make the grammar any simpler.

  • I seldom/rarely ever see them.
  • He hardly/scarcely ever gets it right.

A third point is that there is a personal and temporal dimension to these metaphors. Abstract concepts like emotion and time are almost impossible to talk about without metaphor, and they permeate almost all our metaphors.

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In my experience, the word almost and its synonyms imply "less than", but not necessarily "numerically less than". The context specifies a goal or end point, and a direction of travel to that end point, and while travelling in the direction of the goal, but not reaching the goal, you might almost reach it.

Example:

I made almost $100 over the weekend

This would never imply that someone made $101 over the weekend.

I almost ran the race in 25s

This would imply that the runner was trying for the lowest time and almost broke 25s, i.e. that their time was higher than 25s.

I fired the cannon and the cannonball almost landed right on top of the target

This means that the cannonball landed near the target. It would be perfectly acceptable to say this if the cannonball went slightly farther than the target (I'd argue that at that point, the "direction" of the goal changed because we over-shot it).

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Without reading your answer, I used exactly this example (barely overshooting the mark) in a comment on this page to demonstrate that "almost" does not always mean "less than". IMO you cannot redefine the direction of a cannonball to be below the mark if it overshoots it. If you miss a golf hole by a millimeter, then you almost hit it (and barely missed it), no matter how far the ball travelled or from which direction. –  Translator1983 Jul 4 '12 at 13:39
    
You can change "direction", because hit or miss is directionless, so whichever "direction" you view it from you almost, but not quite, hit the mark. –  Roaring Fish Jul 4 '12 at 13:57
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@Translator1983 I'm not redefining the direction of the cannonball. I'm redefining my perspective, or better, using a perspective whose direction is not necessarily the same as the cannonball. So you "almost" hit your target whether you overshot it, or undershot it, or were slightly to the left or the right. The "almost" doesn't refer to the distance travelled, but rather the magnitude of the distance by which it missed. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 4 '12 at 15:40

The Merriam-Webster defines "almost" as "very nearly but not exactly or entirely"1. Synonyms given are "about, all but, borderline, fair [chiefly British], fairly, feckly [chiefly Scottish], more or less, most, much, near, nearly, next to, nigh, practically, somewhere, virtually, well-nigh, as good as, just about, pretty much, within an inch of".

All of these synonyms default to "a little less" than something. Generally, to find out what a word implies, you can look up its definition in a good dictionary.

An example: The reason why "nearly" implies "less" is that the word has a secondary meaning in addition to "almost".

M-W on "nearly"2: "almost but not quite" (highlighting by me)

"Barely" is no synonym to "almost"! It means that it "just made it" beyond almost and reached equal or greater status. Example: "He's barely 18!" means that he is equal to and/or above the age of 18. "Just" also does not mean almost.

M-W on "barely"3: "in a meager manner"

In my personal experience, "close to" only replaces "almost" adequately if "almost" is the primary meaning. "31 is close to 30" is a bad example, since "31 is almost 30" actually means either "31 is not far from 30" or "the difference between 31 and 30 is negligible". A good example would be "I'm 29, close to 30". Since "almost" implies something being less, the phrase "I'm 30, close to/almost 29" would be wrong.

In the time it took me to write my answer, the same answer has been given as a comment to your question, but I hope the links and explanations are helpful nonetheless.

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I think barely IS sometimes used informally to mean almost. In your example, "barely 18" indeed means "just above 18," as you say. But if someone were to say, "The phone was hung up for barely ten seconds before it rang again!" I'm not so sure that would imply 11 seconds, but not 9. In formal usage, though, I believe your assertion is correct. –  J.R. Jul 4 '12 at 11:31
    
If I am timing someone to do something quickly and they do it in 25.01 seconds, I would tell them that they did it in almost 25 seconds. Just because almost is not quite, does not mean that it is less than. –  Matt Эллен Jul 4 '12 at 11:31
    
@J.R. In my answer, I assumed we were talking about the formal usage, since it is nigh/almost/nearly impossible to make a universally correct statement about informal language. You are right, barely/just are sometimes used for "almost", since they also imply a difficulty in reaching a given value (almost doesn't reach the value, barely does). –  Translator1983 Jul 4 '12 at 11:40
    
@Translator1983: We're in agreement, and I've upvoted your answer. I just thought the caveat was worth mentioning. –  J.R. Jul 4 '12 at 11:41
    
@Matt You are correct. In your example, you use "almost" as a synonym for "approximately", which is absolutely valid (as M-W confirms). However, my reply to the original poster stands (i.e. the synonyms I gave all imply "less"), since approximately was not among the synonyms to almost that were listed by me (quoting M-W) ;-) –  Translator1983 Jul 4 '12 at 11:45

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