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I'm currently writing an academic report and I began to write out the phrase 'nigh-on-impossible' without a second thought. It then occurred to me that this phrase may actually be slang.

I did a quick Google search and someone on Yahoo answers stated:

Nigh is the Old English word for "near". The phrase means "nearly impossible". There is an alternative: "well nigh impossible" Source

With this in mind, would be it appropriate to use a phrase with such origins in an academic report?

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  • Interesting. So the quoted answer is invalid? – AdamMcquiff Jul 24 '17 at 13:26
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    No, of course it's not slang. Twenty-three skidoo is slang. This is nigh on scholarly usage. – tchrist Jul 24 '17 at 13:36
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    @tchrist Well, would you look at that. Problem solved. – AdamMcquiff Jul 24 '17 at 13:37
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    Nigh is archaic, like doth. It's the positive degree of an adverb that caught cancer: nigh 'close', near 'closer', next 'closest'. In modern English we have frozen superlative next into a sequential adverb, and reified the comparative near as a regular adverb with its own paradigm: near, nearer, nearest, and left nigh adrift on the centuries, popping up now and then in a fixed form or a rural dialect, but otherwise irrelevant and attention-calling. If the idea is not to interfere with the content, then using a form that calls attention to itself is not a good idea. – John Lawler Jul 24 '17 at 13:41
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    @AdamMcquiff I didn't actually mention it above, but in all formal writing the idea is not to let the style or structure of the writing interfere with the content. Using dialectal phrases at random is a distraction, inviting the reader to ask, "Now why did he say it that way?". I was not intending to recommend that you use it. Just saying. – John Lawler Jul 24 '17 at 13:53
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Nigh (archaic) means ‘near’.

As in ‘when winter is nigh’, nearly winter. Or ‘Evening is nigh’ - almost evening.

It still shows up in idioms like ‘nigh on impossible’ as you mention.

But that’s not what I dislike about it, for an academic report or serious piece of writing.

What I dislike about it, is that it’s rather woolly.

‘Almost impossible’

What’s that? Surely if something is ‘impossible’ it means it can’t be done. Adding ‘nigh on’ or ‘almost’ to ‘impossible’ - takes something immutable that definitely can’t be done - an imposing mountain that can never be climbed and adds a woolly little cloud to it that says ‘oooh - maybe!’

Although it is, really, correct in English it just sounds a bit - unscientific.

Instead, how about

  • Extraordinarily difficult
  • Highly unlikely to succeed
  • Phenomenally treacherous
  • Outside of predictions
  • A fools errand
  • A Herculean task
  • Monstrously complicated
  • Like an ant trying to scale Everest - highly unlikely

In other words, I would explore other more creative ways of painting a picture of the difficulty of the task without resorting to this idiom.

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