Writers’ Institute director André Aciman has a new essay in The New York Times, “An Adverb That Defies Certainty”:
“I am an “almost” writer.
A quick and random sweep through a few of my manuscripts reveals the following uses of “almost”: almost never, almost always, almost certainly, almost ready, almost willing, almost impulsively, almost as though, almost immediately, almost everywhere, almost kind, almost cruel, almost exciting, almost home, almost asleep, almost dead. She said “Don’t” almost before his lips had touched hers.
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.’ ”
“We were almost naked” says we weren’t quite without clothes, but couldn’t wait to be, which might easily mean “we couldn’t believe we were almost naked.” “Almost naked” is more charged, more erotic, more prurient than “totally naked.”
“Almost” is all about gradations and nuance and about suggestion and shades. Not quite a red wine, but not crimson, not purple either, or maroon; come to think of it, “almost” Bordeaux. “Almost” can be a polite way of saying something definitely. It withholds the obvious and dangles it just long enough. “Almost” is about uncertainty soon to be dismissed but not quite dispelled. “Almost” is about revelation to come but not entirely promised. Read More…“