Almost is a useful word, but I’m increasingly convinced that most of its uses in contemporary writing are needless. This notion has been rattling around in my head for a while, to the point where I’ve started reading sentences again after seeing almost in them—first to see what the sentence says, and again to see what it says without almost. Most sentences become stronger when you drop almost.
Almost is almost always needless—and always needless when all it does is hedge the sentence, appearing in the middle of the sentence to strip it of its urgency or meaning, softening whatever message the author wants to make, undermining the entire thing.
I saw a recent example of almost appearing in the midst of a sentence, doing nothing but undermining the sentence’s purpose. What irritated me most was that this sentence wasn’t buried in the middle of the paragraph. No, it was used as the pull quote in the paper version of The New Yorker. Here’s the sentence, in all its middling, say-nothing glory:
In The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie develop an almost familial bond.Alex Barasch, The New Yorker
Why almost? Why not say they develop a familial bond? What bothers me most is that by saying almost familial, you’re saying that it isn’t familial. Meaning the bond Joel and Ellie develop isn’t familial. Which then demands the question: why not find a better word, if you don’t want to say their bond is familial?
This is far from the only example of this. It’s common in literature, essays, criticism. Almost has become the literary equivalent of kinda and sorta and probably and all those filler words that undermine whatever the speaker wants to convey. And by saying it, the author immediately strips away whatever meaning the rest of the words in the sentence were meant to say.
I don’t need to belabor this point. I do intend to start collecting other iterations of almost.
Almost the Adverb v. Almost the Adjective
My beef with almost does not apply to its use as an adverb, along with many of its uses as an adjective. Consider this screenshot from the Almost entry on Merriam Webster:
Those are two good examples. “Analysts predict raises will rise by almost 40 percent.” This sentence means something. Not quite 40 percent, but almost 40 percent. Meanwhile, goats will eat lots of things. Almost anything. Not literally anything, but almost anything. I like those sentences.
Then we’ve got “burned with impossibly high expectations, the movie came to be regarded as an almost failure”.
It did, did it? An almost failure? What would you call that? Was it a box office bomb? A success? A disappointment? Did the budget exceed the box office? This is the use of almost where its presence calls the entirety of the sentence (or, in this case, sentence fragment) into question. What the hell is an almost failure?
Like with use of almost familial, almost failure has me wondering if the author shouldn’t have spent some more time trying to decide what it was they wanted to say. Surely there’s a word out there that could convey the meaning they intended.
Almost in the News
I decided to put this to the test, and googled almost and sorted by recent News. Here’s what I saw:
Here we have different examples of using almost, some perfectly justified and some obfuscating or annoying.
- Outdoor Griddles Are Good at Cooking Almost Anything. The main thing I think in response to this headline is, “who cares?” This seems like the work of a fussy editor who wanted to ensure that the headline was correct. I’d be far more interested in clicking this if the headline took a more interesting stance. Tell us they can cook anything and back it up.
- Obama concerned that Americans “almost occupy different realities.” The meta description below the headline takes a more interesting approach, dropping the almost premise and going with “Americans are occupying ‘different realities’. The issue here is Obama’s original sentence, not the headline. He had a point to make, but he softened it—and like many points that could hit hard, the appearance of almost gives it an ambiguous, floating, boring meaninglessness.
- Almost 40% of land burned by western wildfires can be traced to carbon emissions. Great sentence. Leads one to believe the number is somewhere between 37% and 39.9%. Useful. I get why they went with almost. It’s true and it adds urgency and meaning, the opposite of the role almost serves in the other two examples.
- California Democrat who almost won seeks a rematch. I love this one because it proves my entire point. A California Democrat who almost won did not win. He lost. And by saying he “almost won”, you are saying that he did not win, just like saying something is “almost familial” means it isn’t familial, Americans “almost occupy different realities” do not occupy different realities, and an “almost failure” is not a failure.
That’s what it comes down to. If something is “almost 40%”, as two things in this article are, we know what it means. If someone almost won, we know what they did not do. But in too many cases, almost is that hedging word.
Although it’s a better word than actually, I suppose.