Imagine similar, but technically different scenarios:

  1. While swimming he was caught by the torrent. It put him under water, he breathed in some water, got unconscious. Some passers-by pulled him out of water, started CPR, and succeeded in saving his life.

  2. He had planned to go swimming after work to his usual everyday place in the local river, but as he was busy at work he couldn't manage it. On the very same day the nearby dam failed, causing catastrophic flood on the very place he intended to swim. Thus he has been saved from drowning.

  3. (added in reaction to @JanusBahsJacquet's comment) While swimming he was caught by the torrent. Fortunately, thanks to his good physical form and a bit of luck, after a long and fierce fight with the elements, he overpowered the vortex and escaped from the water on his own.

Can you distinguish the situations by a single adverb (or a single-word-like phrase)?

He nearly drowned.

He almost drowned.

He was close to drowning.

There is a related question Nearly or Almost, but not helpful for this case.

  • The best way to distinguish them is through an extra phrase. Jul 21, 2014 at 10:53
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    Those all apply to the first setting (getting water in your lungs) but not the second. It's only in a humorous manner in which you might say that. It's like saying the guy who was captain of PT 108 almost became president (because JFK was captain of PT 109).
    – Mitch
    Jul 21, 2014 at 13:53
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    To me, saying in the 2nd scenario that he "almost drowned" is catastrophizing the situation. Even if he had been in the water that day, there's no crystal ball saying he would have drowned. You could say, though, that a potentially dangerous situation was averted by not going in the water that day. Jul 21, 2014 at 15:18
  • @KristinaLopez Very true; but consider the Thailand tsunami example I gave under medica’s answer. The person there did not experience any part of the drowning process, but would with almost absolute certainly have if not for one chance occurence. That’s hardly catastrophising. Jul 21, 2014 at 16:36
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, the tsunami example is most definitely fitting an "almost drowned" label. For the guy who didn't go swimming though, "almost drowned" is still catastrophizing to me and could be more reasonably stated as "I could have drowned today if I had gone in the water." Jul 21, 2014 at 16:46

4 Answers 4


Interesting question!

Actually, I would interpret your example sentences in almost all contexts as meaning your first scenario. To describe your second scenario, I do not believe we normally describe that someone almost or nearly did something, but rather, we play around with modal verbs:

He would have drowned yesterday. (But he decided to stay home.)
He could have drowned in the flood. (But he didn't.)

In some cases, we even use should. Imagine someone trading places with another on a plane, and that plane crashes. Person A, who originally had booked the ticket, finds out that person B, who took his place, miraculously survived. Person A could then state:

B almost died in that plane crash.

If B did die, however, A may feel he unjustly avoided death:

It should have been me that died in that crash!

If he feels lucky, rather than responsible for the situation, he could say:

I could have died in that crash!

But I do not expect person A to say that he almost or nearly died in the crash if he wasn't on board. Also I came close to dying on that crash could be said by B (who was on the plane - if he survived it), but not by A.

  • 1
    No wonder the plane crashed, if security at the airport of departure is so lax they don’t even notice people going on board on other people’s tickets. ;-) Jul 21, 2014 at 9:42
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: A and B are identical twins. But was it really the good twin who survived? Jul 22, 2014 at 0:41

In your first case, the victim (did) nearly, almost, and was close to drowning. In your second case, the person escaped, avoided, and missed drowning.

They are fundamentally different situations. The adverbs are going to be different.

He nearly drowned (adverb) is different than he might have drowned (modal).

  • 1
    I’m not sure this is always true. I can imagine someone saying, “I nearly drowned today!” if they had a narrow escape from a situation in which they might/would have drowned. Likewise, if someone says, “I was nearly killed in a car crash on the way home from work today”, the most likely meaning—unless they’re lying in the ICU with tubes and splints everywhere—is that they narrowly escaped being involved in the accident; not that they were in the accident and were severely injured, but not killed. Jul 21, 2014 at 9:55
  • I agree that I was nearly killed on the road today carries that meaning of a near miss. It carries the connotation of close, as in close call. But I don't think it holds for drowning, as drowning (or nearly so) is not as "black and white" an a serious car accident. Jul 21, 2014 at 10:24
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    It’s certainly harder to make it fit with drowning, but I think it can be done. “God, I nearly drowned today! You know that place by the bridge where the current is really treacherous? A car almost pushed me off the road and straight into the river right there, I only just managed to hold on to the railing!” just about works for me; or “He nearly drowned in the Thailand tsunami in 2004, but managed to escape onto the roof of a building before the water blocked the entrances completely”, which I think is actually quite plausible and natural-sounding. Jul 21, 2014 at 10:29
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I disagree. If I heard "I nearly/almost drowned" means you were in the water."I nearly/almost died today" means you were in a car wreck but survived, not that you could have been in the car wreck.
    – Mitch
    Jul 21, 2014 at 20:09

There is a condition called 'near drowning'

"Near drowning" means a person almost died from not being able to breathe (suffocating) under water.

So, in your examples, one was a victim of near drowning, the other wasn't!


He escaped drowning. The circumstances of each escape were different, so @medica is right, I think, in pointing out that the adverbs cannot be the same. With "escaped," though, one could begin to spin a tall tale: "I know a fellow who escaped drowning every day last week, but never the same way twice . . . " (Go at it, authors!)

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