Almost vs. nearly — the order of approximations

Among the pleasures of Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s writing manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943) is their attempt to put some order on phrases of approximate quantity. It appears among the book’s Principles of Clear Statement, the principle in question being: ‘There should never be any doubt left as to how much, or how long.’

After grumbling briefly about the ‘proper’ (read: borderline etymologically fallacious) use of terms like infinitesimal and microscopic, the authors state that there is ‘a popular scale of emotional approximation’ – not found in any dictionary or reference table – for ‘estimating the comparative degrees of success in, say, catching a train’. It goes like this:

Not nearly, nearly, almost, not quite, all but, just not, within an ace, within a hair’s breadth – oh! by the skin of my teeth, just, only just, with a bit of a rush, comfortably, easily, with plenty to spare.

robert graves alan hodge - the reader over your shoulder - writing handbookYou might dispute the order of these terms, or suggest additions – some of the idiomatic ones seem chosen rather arbitrarily; others have dated – but it is interesting to see them lined up sequentially like this. If you’ve ever wondered if nearly or almost is closer to the target, well, here are two careful readers who feel nearly is nearer the thing.

Graves and Hodge then decide that the ‘popular measure of proportion’ (nearly all, part of, etc.) could be translated into percentage terms, and duly lay it out as follows (the underlines are mine):

(100%) Mr. Jordan’s fortune consisted wholly of bar-gold.
(99%) Practically all his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(95%) His fortune consisted almost entirely of bar-gold.
(90%) Nearly all his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(80%) By far the greater part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(70%) The greater part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(60%) More than half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(55%) Rather more than half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(50%) Half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(45%) Nearly half his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(40%) A large part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(35%) Quite a large part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(30%) A considerable part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(25%) Part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(15%) A small part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(10%) Not much of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(5%) A very small part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(1%) An inconsiderable part of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.
(0%) None of his fortune consisted of bar-gold.

They describe this scale as ‘generally accepted’ but regretfully observe that it is ‘confused by writers who, for dramatic effect, try to make 5% seem more than it is’. Accepted by whom exactly, I don’t know, but the second point is certainly true: many writers are prone to exaggeration for effect or emphasis, perhaps from lack of faith in what they have to say or in how they are saying it.

Bars of gold aside, we can imagine situations where this scale could, if not resolve disagreement, at least offer a point of reference. Just as we all divide the colour spectrum slightly differently, so are we likely to have different ideas about how much the greater part or a small part amounts to. And if I eat 35% of this apple tart, I now know precisely how to formulate my indulgence.

19 Responses to Almost vs. nearly — the order of approximations

  1. mazblast says:

    I’m not convinced that the 55%/60% and 35%/40% examples shouldn’t be reversed.

    • Stan Carey says:

      This is what I was getting at. People have different perceptions of terms like this, especially since they’re often functionally vague or malleable.

  2. astraya says:

    One student was convinced that ‘nearly half’ could be 51-55% as well as 45-49%.

  3. One part that surprises me is “rather more than half” ranked below “more than half”. I would take “rather” to mean “considerably”.

    Back in the day, Dad’s plots of fossil species abundances against depth (which in his work he generated routinely) used a code in which “A” stood for Abundant, “C” Common, “F” “Frequent”, “R” Rare and “X” signified an isolated specimen. The first four codes were based on percentages of the first 100 species logged on the relevant microscope slide. I may have some details wrong.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Rather is a funny word that way, rather like quite. It could be a dialectal difference, or a sign of slight semantic drift in the decades since the book appeared. Mazblast felt as you did that the relative order of more than and rather more than should be reversed.

      In your Dad’s scale, do you know if Common meant more common than Frequent? I would be inclined to see them the other way around.

      • I think Dad’s scale was as I gave it, but it was a long time ago, hailing from the days of dot matrix printers. He would be the first to admit that the system was arbitrary. Later technology allowed a more graphical representation.

        The phrase “rather more than” does not, for me, sit comfortably with the mathematically precise “half”. It pairs better with a subjective measure, as in “rather more than I expected”.

  4. Mise says:

    I recall hearing a heated debate in Scotland once over which was the shorter period of time, ‘a wee tickie tickie’ or ‘just a ticky-tick.’ I believe someone was just popping out to the car.

    It was there also that I first encountered differentiation by repetition. Which dress will you wear? The dress dress. Which shelf is it on? The shelf shelf. I imagine they meant the dressiest dress and the shelfiest shelf…

  5. David L says:

    By a principle of symmetry, I can deduce that ‘practically none’ must mean the same as ‘an inconsiderable part,’ and that ‘no inconsiderable part’ is ‘practically all.’

    But if I want to say 45%, I think I should say ‘rather less than half,’ to be consistent with ‘rather more than half.’

    And what about ‘much of his fortune,’ or ‘little of’? I think a great deal of work is needed to refine this system.

    • mazblast says:

      To me, “rather” implies a great amount more or less. IMO “rather less than half” is a smaller percentage than “less than half”, and “rather more than half” is more than “more than half”.

      However, that’s just my opinion.

    • Stan Carey says:

      David: Applying symmetry to the entries produces some interesting results. But I don’t think refining the system is likely to satisfy everyone (and maybe not even most people); rather, different people have different ideas about what these terms mean. Consensus may be forever elusive.

      Which is why I wonder what the authors meant by its being ‘generally accepted’: perhaps they circulated it to a dozen friends and colleagues, or something along those lines.

  6. […] Almost v nearly: the order of approximations. […]

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