Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enough almost already! (Almost.)

André Aciman

As a university freshman many years ago, I was cautioned by my English professor Morse Hamilton against overuse of the word "almost," but I'm now told by Professor André Aciman, writing in "An Adverb That Defies Certainty" (NYT, September 15, 2012), that "almost" is almost always right . . . though he acknowledges that others would disagree:
"Almost" is not the favorite word of all authors. One can imagine -- though no one's counting -- that Hemingway was not a friend of "almost." Nor was Teddy Roosevelt. Nor, I'd wager, would the frugal, unimaginative Messieurs Strunk and White have been well disposed to it had they been asked about its eloquence.
Actually (another word I've been cautioned against), I exaggerated. Aciman doesn't claim that "almost" is usually right. He simply praises its correctness -- when it is correct, as it often is -- and with rare literary eloquence explores its meaning:
We know what "almost" means. Dictionaries, however vaguely they define the word, agree on this, that "almost" means something between "short of" and "sort of." We also know that "almost" is mostly used as an adverb, and adverbs can define a verb, adjective or another adverb. But "almost" is also a stringer, a filler. Two extra syllables, like blush after makeup, just that requisite fuzziness, like ambiguity in an instance of total candor. A halt in midspeech, an extra tap on the piano's pedal, a suggestion of doubt and degree, of resonance and approximation, where straight, flat surfaces are the norm. "By using 'almost,'" says the writer, "I'm saying there is 'less than'; but what I mean to suggest is that there is possibly 'more than.'"
That's entirely right -- no almost about it! I need to direct my Korean students to this explanation of how to use the word, for they almost invariably use it to mean "all." That doesn't happen with native speakers, of course, who know better. Not that they are so much better about using it with style, for in defense of my freshman composition professor, who was an excellent writer, "almost" is too often poorly used. Strunk and White would have had their reasons:
But then there are writers who with an "almost," or a "presque" in French, can suddenly illuminate a reader's universe. "She asked herself why she had done something so perilous, and she concluded that she had embarked on it almost without thinking."
Try that latter sentence without "almost" and hear how much is lost. Almost everything.

And this line wouldn't work at all . . . if not for "almost."



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