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Now, before I get jumped on because almost is always an adverb, please allow me to explain.

If almost is an adverb, which it most definitely is (I checked several dictionaries and it is only listed as an adverb), then it must be modifying a verb, or an adjective or another adverb, but its relation is with the noun phrase the size, and really, so it seems, between pods and the size. Adverbs don't modify nouns. It appears to be functioning as a preposition, and indeed about or around, which are true prepositions, would produce equivalent meaning.

The only other option I can see is that almost is modifying the main verb transform which it is not - the flowers do not almost transform, they do indeed transform, so that cannot be the relation.

Ah, come to think of it, there does seem to be one more possibility, namely the demon ellipsis.

These tiny flowers transform into pulp-filled pods (that are) almost the size of rugby balls.

So, its a clause, where almost is modifying the elided verb. I think that's the answer but I still want to hear what folks have to say. Ellipsis seems to be a very strong factor in the evolution of grammar.

Some will say that adverbs can modify noun phrases, and some dictionaries do mention this use as rare but possible (e.g. Cambridge). However, dictionaries are hardly the arbiters of what is grammatical and others do not attribute this function to the adverb class (e.g. Lexico and Dictionary.com. Some sidestep the issue by saying they can modify "phrases". Ha!

It sees a rather bold step to alter the class definition of adverbs with the function of the adjective class, which breaks the distinction, the very usefulness of classes, and seems wrong to me. It seems more fitting to broaden the scope of words, as they evolve in usage, to include another class function, such as almost, which seems to be commonly used as both a preposition and an adjective.

I'm quite stuck with this one. The use is quite common and undeniably well understood. Perhaps this is the language changing again, and it's time to reconsider the scope of this word to include a prepositional function. But maybe someone more knowledgeable than I has a better explanation.

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    If it were an adjective, it would have to read the almost size of rugby balls, which is wrong. – Peter Shor Nov 4 '19 at 13:15
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    Adverbs can certainly modify NPs. "Almost" is an adverb modifying the NP (not a clause) "the size of rugby balls", which modifies "pods". (Btw, it's possible for adverbs to modify nouns, but it's rare) – BillJ Nov 4 '19 at 13:26
  • @PeterShor - did I say it was an adjective? It does, however, seem to be an elliptic adjectival non-finite relative clause. You have a lot of point so I will defer to you. What do you think? – Ubu English Nov 4 '19 at 13:43
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    You didn't say it was an adjective, but you didn't explain why it wasn't, either. So I thought I'd add an explanation. – Peter Shor Nov 4 '19 at 13:47
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    @PeterShor - granted that its function here is prepositional or adjectival with elision, but in other ways it is clearly used adjectivally (as a determiner) as in Almost everyone enjoyed the show. – Ubu English Nov 5 '19 at 14:43
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Original: These tiny flowers transform into pulp-filled pods almost the size of rugby balls.

=> These tiny flowers transform into pulp-filled pods (that are) almost the size of rugby balls.

that are the size, that are exactly the size, that are almost the size

"Almost" is an adverb that answers the question "to what degree" are they the same size.

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  • If an adverb by definition as a word class is a modifier of verbs, adjectives or adverbs - what then is it modifying in this sentence? So it seems you are agreeing with me (I said this in the OP). But if you read the comments you will see that not everyone agrees with this view that 'almost' is modifying an elided verb (be). – Ubu English Nov 26 '19 at 6:31
  • @UbuEnglish There are two views: 1. "almost" is an adverb: "the size of rugby balls" is an adjectival phrase - this is not immediately apparent but the full phrase would be "of the size of rugby balls", which is an adjectival phrase. 2. An alternative view would be that "almost" is, as the OED says "B. adj Premodifying a noun or noun phrase: close to being (the thing mentioned). Cf. nearly adj. --1600 W. Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing v. i. 114 You are almost come to parte almost a fray. – Greybeard May 21 at 20:25
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I think it might be helpful to look at a top-down analysis of the structure:

[sentence] --> [subject] [predicate]
[subject] --> [noun-phrase] ("...flowers")
[predicate] --> [verb-phrase] ("transform...")

[verb-phrase] --> [verb] [adverb]
[verb] = "transform"
[adverb] --> [prep-phrase] ("into...")

[prep-phrase] --> [preposition] [noun-phrase]
[preposition] = "into"
[noun-phrase] = "pods..."

[noun-phrase] --> [noun] [dependent-adj-phrase]
[noun] = "pods"
[dependent-adj-phrase] = "Ø Ø almost the size of rugby balls"

We just reached the grammatically tricky part: the "zero" relative (i.e., an implicit "that/which are").

[dependent-adj-phrase] --> [relative-pronoun] [verb-phrase]
[relative-pronoun] = "Ø"
[verb-phrase] = "Ø almost the size of rugby balls"

[verb-phrase] --> [verb] [predicate-nominative]
[verb] = "Ø"
[predicate-nominative] = "...size..."

[predicate-nominative] --> [adverb] [determiner] [noun] [adj-phrase]
[adverb] = "almost"
[determiner] = "the"
[noun] = "size"
[adj-phrase] = "of rugby balls"

I think that is far enough to show how almost fits in and why and how it is an adverb.

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