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Concerning style, usage, and correctness: what is the difference in meaning (and therefore usage & correctness) between these two phrases?

A quick search reveals both are in use.

Also, what other precedent for meaning, style, and usage exists for multiple phrases (adverb modifying adverb, or otherwise) with the same or nearly the same meaning?

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    Context? Both expressions are weird. – Hot Licks May 21 '15 at 12:28
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Someone can correct me if I'm wrong but this is how I understand it.

Near and Nearly

Source: Grammarly Handbook

Nearly is an adverb, which means almost; near is a flexible little word which can be an adjective, verb, adverb or preposition.

This means that both of the following are correct:
This essay is nearly complete.
This essay is near-complete.

If we switch to "Nearly universally", we are now dealing with "near" + adjective + noun. An example sentence could be:
This essay is nearly universally accepted.
This essay is near-universally accepted.

Here, some minor ambiguity is possible because there are two modifiers and a noun. To me, these both can have different meanings, if only slightly.

This essay is nearly universally accepted. The essay is very close to being "universally accepted".

This essay is near-universally accepted. The essay is accepted "almost universally".

Nearly modifies accepted while Near- modifies universal.

Usage

Neither of them sound great to me and neither is widely used. But of the two, nearly universally is more common according to Google NGrams.

I recommend skipping both and rephrasing into something cleaner.

  • Quite the actionable recommendation. Good detail and formatting of examples. And thank you! – mcint May 25 '15 at 23:26
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I'll guess that "a near universal" is a noun phrase with the adjective "near" modifying "universal", and that there is an adjective derived from this, "near universal", which is a compound adjective, since it is made from two words. Then from that adjective, we derive an adverb by adding -ly: [ [ near universal ] ly ]. Since it is unusual for an affix like -ly to be added to a two word constituent, in spelling this, we like to use a hyphen to try to make clear that the -ly affix doesn't go only with the "universal", but rather with "near universal". (If the -ly affix went with just "universal", then we'd have an adjective "near" modifying an adverb "universally", which is impossible, since adjectives can't modify adverbs.)

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