Here is a sentence from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

"Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces."

I could not help but notice you nearly were in the sentence and got curious why nearly came before were - not after. I searched on Google and you were nearly killed showed far more results than you nearly were killed; moreover, some site that shares quotes from books cited the sentence with you were nearly killed, from which I could suppose that you were nearly killed sounds more appropriate.

So, what is with them? If any, is there any difference in terms of meaning? And why did Hemingway write the sentence that way?

  • Googling for results on two phrases helps in some instances, but in this case, you'd need to compare writings contemporary to Hemingway to see whether the phrase is odd. Language drifts over time, and it might certainly have since Hemingway's time.
    – TriskalJM
    Jan 2, 2017 at 11:20

1 Answer 1


I can't tell you exactly why Hemingway wrote it that way as it is about twenty years since I read the novel.

But, in they nearly were killed, nearly qualifies were emphasising the near actuality as opposed to conjecture as to what happened. It could be said in response to the question Could they have been killed?

However, in they were nearly killed, nearly provides a more general qualification of killed emphasising the fact of possible death. It could be in response to the question What happened to them?.

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