Nearly vs. Almost & Barely vs. Hardly

Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me. “

Carl Sandburg, an American poet

“There is a kind of serenity in love, which is almost a paradise.”

Alain Badiou, a French philosopher 

“I love a sandwich that you can barely fit in your mouth because there’s so much stuff on it.”

Adrianne Palicki, an American actress

“Life is hardly more than a fraction of a second.”

Paul Gauguin, a French artist

Nearly, almost, barely and hardly are adverbs whose meanings are quite similar. Let’s see what similarities and what differences there are.

NEARLY & ALMOST

Nearly and almost mean near to a particular amount of time, money, people, or things:

It took nearly/almost an hour to finish this report.

I spent nearly/almost 200 dollars on the present.

Nearly/almost 1000 people were evacuated.

I know nearly/almost all of this already. Tell me something new.

In poor urban communities, firewood alone often meets nearly/almost all the energy needs of households.

Nearly and almost are also used to indicate that something will soon be the case:

I was nearly/almost asleep.

It was nearly/almost 6 o’clock in the morning.

I nearly/almost fell. At the last moment, I managed to grab ahold of the rope.

We are nearly/almost there.

Nearly and almost are used in informal speech to say that we felt like doing something but did not:

We nearly/almost went to the concert, but we were both too tired.

I nearly/almost married that bastard!

NEARLY DIED & ALMOST DIED

Both nearly died and almost died can be used literally:

I nearly/almost died on this expedition.

He nearly/almost died in the bombing.

The expressions can also be used figuratively:

I almost/nearly died when I saw our engagement pictures still on your mantle. (I was so shocked to see them there.)

I almost/nearly died when I forgot my lines on stage during the performance. (I was so embarrassed.)

Although nearly and almost are very similar, they have differences too:

  1. We can use very before nearly, but not before almost: It very nearly knocked me off my feet. (It very almost knocked me off my feet.)
  2. Nearly can mean closely, but almost cannot: We’re more nearly related (= closely related) to the great apes than some of us might think. (We’re more almost related to the great apes than some of us might think.)
  3. We use almost (but not nearly) to soften statements: It was almost as if she knew I felt guilty. (It was nearly as if she knew I felt guilty.) I almost wanted it to happen. (I nearly wanted it to happen.) There is a kind of serenity in love, which is almost a paradise. (There is a kind of serenity in love, which is nearly a paradise.)
  4. Not nearly is a phrase which we can use to emphasize that something is not the case (we can’t use almost like that): British car workers did not earn nearly enough money to buy the products they were turning out. (British car workers did not earn almost enough money to buy the products they were turning out.)

BARELY & HARDLY

Barely and hardly are different from almost and nearly. They means only just, by the smallest amount:

I can barely/hardly remember what happened. (I can remember but I’m very close to forgetting it completely.)

They have barely/hardly enough to pay the rent this month. (They don’t have more than the sum needed.)

He was barely/hardly alive when they found him. (He was almost dead.)

She was barely/hardly 20 when she moved to Germany. (She had just turned 20 when she moved to Germany.)

The airplane had barely/hardly taken off when the fire started. (The airplane took off and the fire started right after that.)

But the words are not always interchangeable. We can use hardly to mean no, not likely:

I hardly think so. (I don’t think so.)

They all thought you were great! – Well, hardly. (Well, no.)

The news is hardly surprising. (The news is not surprising.)

We say hardly ever, not barely ever, to mean almost never:

I hardly ever saw my father.

Such things hardly ever happen.

We can say hardly a day goes by (not nearly a day goes by) to emphasize how often something happens:

Hardly a day goes by without a visit from someone. (Someone visits us practically every day.)

Hardly a day goes by without another attack here or there. (There is an attack virtually every day.)

HARDLY vs. HARD

Hard is both an adjective and an adverb:

He works hard. (adverb)

She’s trying too hard. (adverb)

It’s hard work. (adjective)

It’s hard. (adjective).

So, compare the sentences:

  • I can hardly work. (I almost can’t work, it’s very difficult for me to work.)
  • I can work hard. (I am very diligent and hard-working.)

Do you have any questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments below.

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