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In CGEL (p. 640), it is stated (without argument) that in the sentence

[1] They live n̲e̲a̲r̲ ̲h̲e̲r̲e̲.

we have the preposition phrase (PP) near here, which (says CGEL) has the following structure: near is the head (in particular, it is a preposition), and it has here as a PP complement. Let's call near here the 'outer' PP, and here the 'inner' PP. The inner PP (GGEL continues), in turn, is headed by a non-specified preposition (see the next paragraph). In this case, the inner PP consists of just the head, but here is an example where an inner PP has a more complex structure: from u̲n̲d̲e̲r̲ ̲t̲h̲e̲ ̲b̲e̲d̲.

To say that the head of the inner PP is not specified means that instead of here, we could have other things, e.g. there, London, etc. This is in contrast to PP complements headed by specified prepositions, where nothing else could replace that preposition, e.g. of in out of the box.

Now, my question: what is the argument for this proposed structure of near here? Let's assume that near is indeed a preposition (which is not obvious, but maybe it's indeed true; see below). Why not say that here is the head? Is it just that near appears first? Surely there is more to it than that---there are all kinds of cases where the head of a PP is not the first word. Here are some examples (the head is underlined): incredible t̲h̲o̲u̲g̲h̲ it seems; one b̲y̲ one; ten years a̲g̲o̲; these issues a̲s̲i̲d̲e̲ (CGEL, pp. 631-634). Yes, the default position of the head in a PP is the initial position; yes, these examples are all exceptional in one way or another. By how do we know that near here isn't also somehow exceptional? The fuzzy status of near (see below) makes near here a good candidate for something exceptional to happen...

Also, note that either near or here can be omitted from [1]:

[2] a.They live near.
      b. They live here.

Finally, note that semantically at least, either one can be taken as the essential one:

[3] a. They live near (by which I mean: near to where we are now).
      b. They live here (well, not exactly, but almost).

I am tempted to say that [3a] is a rephrasing of [1] when near is the head of near here, while [3b] is a rephrasing of [1] when here is the head of near here.

One line of argument, suggested by sumelic, is that near always precedes its complement when that complement is an NP:

[4] They live n̲e̲a̲r̲ ̲[̲m̲y̲ ̲h̲o̲u̲s̲e̲]̲/̲[̲w̲h̲a̲t̲ ̲c̲o̲u̲l̲d̲ ̲b̲e̲ ̲d̲e̲s̲c̲r̲i̲b̲e̲d̲ ̲a̲s̲ ̲a̲ ̲l̲a̲k̲e̲]̲.

In these cases near cannot be omitted, so it is definitely the head.

Moreover, sumelic points out the following sentence:

[5] If your hotel is near here or near the train station, you can get there on foot. (source)

I don't think [5] in and of itself proves much. But the following sentence, if acceptable, perhaps would go some way towards proving that near is indeed the head in near here:

[6] If your hotel is near here or the train station, you can get there on foot.

It would be hard to believe that the common element, near, could be the head when joined with one coordinate, but not the head when joined with the other.

For what it's worth, to my ear, [6] is indeed OK.

Is this right? Is [6] acceptable, and if so, does it prove that near is the head of near here?

The 'fuzzy' status of near

As a separate issue, there is some doubt about whether near is even a preposition in [1] (and if it is not, then it clearly isn't the head). I am still digesting the very interesting answers that sumelic and tchrist have given as regards this topic, and will not yet attempt to summarize them. My original source of the doubt about whether near is really a preposition was that, after all, the following sentence is acceptable:

They live v̲e̲r̲y̲ ̲n̲e̲a̲r̲ ̲h̲e̲r̲e̲.
(And here are some examples in published literature of such usage.)

This would suggest (I thought) that near in [1] is not a preposition at all, but rather an adverb modifying here. And if this is correct, then it is here which is the head of near here, contrary to what CGEL says.

(If there is any doubt that CGEL says what I say it says, here is a direct quote, with the near here example in boldface:

The PPs here, there, now, then occur as complement to a wider range of prepositions than do such PPs as under the bed or after six. We find, for example, They live n̲e̲a̲r̲ ̲h̲e̲r̲e̲; Put it o̲n̲ ̲t̲h̲e̲r̲e̲: I found it b̲e̲h̲i̲n̲d̲ ̲̲h̲e̲r̲e̲: You should have told me b̲e̲f̲o̲r̲e̲ ̲n̲o̲w̲; He certainly stayed p̲a̲s̲t̲ ̲t̲h̲e̲n̲.

Note that the other CGEL examples don't suffer from the same problem as near here, because what are claimed to be the heads of the matrix PPs (on, behind, before, past) cannot be preceded by very. Before and past can be preceded by e.g. much and way, but not by very. )

Again, several answers have addressed this issue (whether near is really a preposition) already, and I am still working through them. Moreover, as tchrist and others have pointed out, it has been already discussed in other questions, where this one seems the most relevant.

Summary

  1. Assuming we accept that near is a preposition in [1], what argument can be given for the assertion that it is near, rather than here, that is the head of the PP near here?

  2. In particular, is [6] acceptable, and if so, does it prove that near is the head of near here?

2

I'm not sure about how to prove that "near" is the head of "near here." However, I don't find the argument that "near" is an adverb in "very near here" very convincing, for the reasons listed below, so I would default to assuming it is the head because

  • prepositions and adjectives precede their complements by default
  • "near" certainly precedes its complement when the complement is an NP such as "my house." There are examples of parallelism with "near here" coordinated with "near [NP]": although these don't prove anything about the structure of "near here", I think they are weak evidence for it sharing some structure with "near [NP]."

    If your hotel is near here or near the train station, you can get there on foot. (Rick Steves Italy 2017)

"very near" seems to be possible even when "near" is definitely not an adverb

They live near here.

If you call near in this sentence an adverb modifying "here," what would you say about sentences like the following?

They live near my house.

While it seems (I'm looking at an old question of yours, Adverbs modifying nouns?) that adverbs can modify NPs in some circumstances, I don't think that's what's happening here because if "near" were an adverb, I would expect it to be an adjunct and therefore optional in this construction. But "near" is actually necessary for the construction to be grammatical; we can't say

*They live my house.

So it seems to me that "near" is in fact the head of the complement of "live" here, and "my house" is the complement of "near."

We could hypothesize that "near" can be used in two ways, as a head and as an adverbial adjunct, but that doesn't resolve the problematic use of "very near" that you identified because we can say

They live very near my house.

I think this example, along with the previous ones, shows that we have to say that "very" can modify "near" even when "near" is functioning as a head, not as an adverb.

Maybe "near" is a weird (gradable) preposition

There is other evidence showing that it is not entirely impossible for a prepositional phrase to be modified by "very." Maybe "near" is just a weird preposition that licenses the use of "very" to modify prepositional phrases of which it is the head (as tchrist says, a "gradable preposition").

We can say things like "very out of place/very out of fashion." I found an article "The Language Mavens," by Steven Pinker, that provides another example that I think is similar and some discussion:

Safire then goes on to rebuke Streisand for "very in the moment":

This very calls attention to the use of a preposition or a noun as a modifier, as in "It's very in" or "It's very New York" or the ultimate fashion compliment, "It's very you." To be very in the moment (perhaps a variation of of the moment or up to the minute) appears to be a loose translation of the French au courant, variously translated as "up-to-date, fashionable, with-it"...

Once again, by patronizing Streisand's language, Safire has misanalyzed its form and its meaning. He has not noticed that:

  1. The word "very" is not connected to the preposition "in"; it's connected to the entire prepositional phrase "in the moment."

  2. Streisand is not using the intransitive "in," with its special sense of "fashionable"; she is using the conventional transitive "in," with a noun phrase object "the moment."

  3. Her use of a prepositional phrase as if it were an adjective to describe some mental or emotional state follows a common pattern in English: "under the weather," "out of character," "off the wall," "in the dumps," "out to lunch," "on the ball" and "out of mind."

(in The Workings of Language: From Prescriptions to Perspectives, edited by Rebecca S. Wheeler, accessed through Google Books)

Now, this is obviously not exactly the same usage as "live very near here." Pinker's examples of prepositional phrases that can be treated like adjectives would mainly appear in the same environment as adjectives: predicative or preposed attributive contexts, such as "He's very under the weather" or "A very out-of-character moment for him."

The verb "live" does not usually take an adjective phrase as its complement (although I think it is possible, as in "live free") and I can't find any examples searching the Google Ngram Viewer of "live very in *" or "live very out *" (although a Google search did turn up a few examples of "live very out of the way"). So, there does still seem to be something special about the behavior of prepositional phrases headed by "near." But, I think examples like the ones Pinker lists do show that prepositional phrases can be modified by "very" in at least some circumstances.

Maybe "near" is a transitive adjective

The other option that seems possible to me at the moment (grammarians have probably already thought about it and found reasons to reject it) is to consider "near" a "transitive adjective" in this context, like "worth." Near can certainly function as an adjective when it doesn't have a complement, so it doesn't seem so much of a stretch to suppose it could also be an adjective with a complement.

From reading "New transitive adjectives" (Pullum, Language Log), it looks to me like the CGEL argument against this analysis would be the existence of pied-piped constructions like "near which...," which are not possible with "worth."

  • @BillJ: That analysis does seem to be right. My understanding of linguisticturn's question was that the complication posed by CGEL's analysis is the use of the adverb "very" as a modifier of the PP "near here," since PPs are rarely able to be modified by "very." – sumelic Mar 25 '17 at 21:09
  • @sumelic I have rewritten the question to make it clear that it is not just about whether near is a preposition or not... I don't know if perhaps I had better pose it as a new question? – linguisticturn Mar 25 '17 at 21:48
  • @sumelic Whatever happens---thank you so much! – linguisticturn Mar 25 '17 at 21:57
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    @sumelic Yeah, as I'm sure you've checked yourself, google books has no examples where it is here itself that is coordinated with an NP, which would make for a much stronger case... Still, to my ear, They live near here or the train station sounds acceptable if a bit awkward... – linguisticturn Mar 25 '17 at 22:47
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Please also see John Lawler’s answer regarding superlative prepositions. Mark Beadles also has an answer there quoting the OED regarding near as what Mark calls a “sneaky” adverb.

Near as a Gradable Preposition

One way to look at this is to think of near as a gradable preposition. Grading prepositions is rather uncommon but certainly possible, at least in speech:

Jim, could you please reset the clock above the door for me?

[time passes as the task is completed]

No, sorry, I meant the clock more above the door than the one you reset.

Prepositions are connecting little function words that describe the relation of their noun-phrase (NP) complement to other words in the sentence, most typically to another NP but sometimes also to a verb phrase (VP). The preposition together and its complement make up a prepositional phrase (PP).

These are all clearly prepositions because they are the connection between one NP (the clock) and another (the door):

  • the clock above the door
  • the clock by the door
  • the clock near the door

It just so happens that because of its origins as a modifier, near even as a preposition continues to enjoy the customary perquisite of modifiers in being subject both to other modifiers of degree and even to regular inflectional morphology:

  • He chose a seat near the door.
  • He chose a seat very near the door.
  • With just two seats in the room, he always prefers the one nearer the door.
  • He picked the seat nearest the door.

These are not adjectives the way the nearest door would be; they come before the entire NP to join it to something that came before it.

Other modifiers like close and far can’t stand alone as prepositions in their own right but instead need to be followed by another preposition to be used as a prepositional phrase:

  • the chair close to the door
  • the chair closer to the door
  • the chair far from the door
  • the chair farthest from the door

Although you can combine near with to in this way, you don’t need to, which is what makes it unusual as prepositions run in its gradability.

There are of course other possible analyses of what’s going on here, such has a hidden whiz-deletion. But thinking of near as a gradable preposition may be the simplest explanation.

  • I have rewritten the question to make it clear that it is not just about whether near is a preposition or not... I don't know if perhaps I had better pose it as a new question? Or could you unmark the 'duplicate' label? – linguisticturn Mar 25 '17 at 21:49
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    @Araucaria No, it’s because I a word out. – tchrist Mar 26 '17 at 18:46

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