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They had almost reached the door when a voice spoke from the chair nearest them, "I can't believe you're going to do this.”

I guess nearest is at the place of preposition. Can a preposition have the form of superlative?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Near is a bit of an unusual 'frozen' word. It was originally the comparative form of nigh (from OE nior). The terms nearer and nearest came later as speakers reinterpreted near as a positive form.

In addition near is rather vague with respect to its word class. The OED Online at near, adv.2 (and prep.2) notes the "difficulty of distinguishing the adjectival, adverbial, and prepositional or quasi-prepositional uses" of the word.

Regarding the comparative and superlative "prepositional" uses, the OED (ibid.) says:

When the noun or noun phrase is the direct complement of near , this acquires practically the force of a preposition, but differs from true prepositions in having comparative and superlative forms.

...(emphasis mine) which is exactly the case here. In short, it looks like a preposition, but it's a sneaky adverb.


Also, at least in etymological origin, the to in "near/-er/-est to them" was actually a later addition to the idiom from Middle English, so it's not well-motivated to regard "near them" as a to-deletion as opposed to retention of an earlier form.

Old Icelandic nær (like Old English nēar ) might be used either alone or with a noun complement in the dative case. Both usages were adopted in Middle English, and a further construction introduced by the use of to before the noun.

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+1 Suggested modification: "a cunning adjective masquerading as a sneaky adverb". –  StoneyB Dec 31 '12 at 4:56

It is a clever example, but most will consider this to be a shortened form of nearest to them. Adjectives can take prepositional phrase complements, and of course are the only word class which takes superlative marking.

This is a nice example of how linguistic data is frequently "corrected" by linguistic theory.

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Comparative and superlative adverbs also exist, eg, "She ran fast, but he ran faster". "They sang more loudly than we did, but you sang most loudly" (not a great sentence, I admit, but grammatical nonetheless). –  user21497 Dec 31 '12 at 4:26
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I respectfully disagree that any "shortened form" should be replaced by some theoretical but un-uttered "longer form" in cases like this. The utterance was "nearest them" and is well-attested. –  Mark Beadles Dec 31 '12 at 4:28
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@Mark: Where does jlovegren say that it "should be replaced"? And where is your evidence that "nearest to them" is "unuttered"? It is uttered, but not as often as "nearest them" (in writing at least). –  user21497 Dec 31 '12 at 4:31
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@BillFranke My apologies for lack of clarity. Substitute "should be replaced by" with "should be analyzed as" and "un-uttered" with "un-uttered (by that speaker)". My point stands. –  Mark Beadles Dec 31 '12 at 4:40
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@MarkBeadles it's a legitimate methodological question to raise. if you like make a question of it on Linguistics SE. –  jlovegren Dec 31 '12 at 7:10

This is a good example of how useless traditional parts of speech are.
And how much confusion results from searching for them.

As usual, many markers have been deleted from a clause, producing an opaque (but much shorter) result. Below, the deleted markers are in boldface:

  • a voice spoke from the chair which was the nearest chair to them

As you can see, nearest is not a preposition, but a simple predicate adjective which happens to be inflected with the superlative -est. The repeated NP the chair is deleted in context, leaving only nearest to them, which could be perfectly ordinary in a relative clause

  • a voice spoke from the chair which was nearest to them

And then Whiz-deletion gets rid of which was, thus destroying the evidence of the relative clause, and producing what looks like it might be a very strange prepositional phrase indeed. But isn't.

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I’ve always puzzled that near the door, nearer the door, nearest the door looks rather like we’re inflecting a preposition as though it were an adjective or adverb. –  tchrist Dec 31 '12 at 17:34
    
But of course, it's not a preposition; it's an adjective and therefore may be fearlessly inflected. –  John Lawler Dec 31 '12 at 17:52
    
The mentioned part of question (ie, “a voice spoke from the chair nearest them”) has no to in it; perhaps boldface to in your bullets? And explain loss of to? –  jwpat7 Jan 1 '13 at 0:26
    
Near, and therefore nearest, doesn't require to. She lives near (to) me. –  John Lawler Jan 1 '13 at 0:36

Prepositions are thrown into the adverb category. Some adverbs have comparative and superlative forms, yes, and some, eg to, by, for. from, don't. "...from the chair nearest (to) them" is grammatical English.

But "near" in the phrase a voice spoke from the chair nearest them functions as a locative adverb as well as a preposition. "From" is the first preposition in that prepositional phrase, and "nearest (to)" is the second (but the to has been elided, and whether or not it's there is a matter of style and idiom).

Google Ngrams shows that both phrases are used, but that nearest you is at least 4 times more frequent than nearest to you.

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Yes, viewing near as an adverb is the best way to analyze it. –  Mark Beadles Dec 31 '12 at 4:55

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