Grammar Q: Near, Nearer, Nearest [to?]

When should we follow this word by 'to"? Does it matter if it’s being used as an adjective rather than an adverb?

I would never say “near to”, but I very much want to say “nearer to” and “nearest to”.

As a comparative adjective:

1a) I live near the river.

1b) Steve lives nearer [to] the river.

1c) Jane lives nearest [to] the river.
Using “to” sounds better (necessary, in fact) if the compared subjects are both included in the sentence:

1d) Steve lives nearer [to] the river than I.
As comparative adverbs:

2a) The oak tree fell near my house.

2b) The oak tree fell nearer the fence.

2c) The oak tree fell nearest the fence.

I think the thing that screws me up is when I try to define “near” as meaning “close to”, in which case we should never need to add “to” after any of the above examples because it’a already implied in the definition of “near”.

The actual example I’m dealing with is a student’s translation from a foreign language news report about the recent CT elementary school shooting:

(This is an ESL student, so don’t be too shocked by the errors.)

I cautioned the student about using the phrase “close to” when talking about two people, as it can be taken in a sentimental way. I am also trying to get the student to make better use of comparative adjectives and adverbs, so I suggested using either “closer to/closest to” or “nearer/nearest” the violence.

As you have probably already guessed, the student asked me why I omitted “to” after “nearer/nearest”. I fumbled around in the dusty grammar rule books in my brain and could only come up with: because it feels wrong. This answer is never satisfying to an ESL student.

So what do you think? Is it regional? A style choice? Either/or is correct?

You living near the river is an absolute statement. You saying nearer is relative. Nearer in relation to what? The river.

There are other cases where idiomatic usage inserts prepositions such as to when it would seem superfluous. Your real issue is not “what’s ‘correct’” but rather how to explain it. You kind of have the answer already:

If this particular ELL is advanced enough, she might be prepared to learn the role of emphatic particles in English, which some people might be surprised to realize are used not only in languages like Japanese. She has to be able to grasp that things are aren’t always a simple matter of “correct” vs. “incorrect.”

You can show her other examples:

I’m at home vs. I’m home.

Come on in! vs. Come in!

Where are you at? vs. Where are you?

Some of this is because “nearer” and “nearest” are new-ish words. The old paradigm is:

nigh, near [nigh-er], next [nigh-est]

Near went from comparative degree to positive degree as “nigh” grew more and more archaic.

Okay, maybe that’s not an explanation for the use of the preposition, but it’s a cool etymology and I wanted to share.

It is cool indeed.

Patty, are you familiar with the student’s native language? Every language has some words which are “similar but not the same”; perhaps you or the student can come up with some examples of pairs from her language whose different meaning doesn’t translate well into English. An English pair which drives Hispanics nuts is “on/in” (both are most commonly translated as en into Spanish); a Spanish pair which drives most foreigners up a wall and down another is ser/estar (both would usually be translated into English as “to be”). In both cases, the difference is clear to a native but articulating it can be difficult.

Both “near” and “close to” can be used to refer to geographic or sentimental closeness, although the sentimental usage for “near(er/est)” seems to be somewhat old fashioned; “nearer” is kind of a mouthful, which may be the reason “closer” is more common (I don’t think a 20x difference in google hits will be due to the TV series).

It’s even worse than that: The usage of “on/in” (and “at”) in English is confounded even in English.

Example: A passenger rides in a car, on a bus, on a train, or in an airplane.

A person may be in the house, or at home, at the supermarket, or at the doctor’s office. In other languages, in would be used for all of these cases.

In French (I’m told), a musician “plays at the piano”, while in English, the verb is transitive, so it’s just “plays the piano”. Many verbs are transitive in some languages (thus no preposition is required before the object), while intransitive in other languages (thus, some preposition is required before the object).