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I thought adverbs didn't modify nouns but then what's going on in these sentences:

It is nearly two o'clock

We were there for nearly an hour

The town is nearly forty miles from here

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  • You're wrong, "o'clock" is not a noun. Why not look it up in a dictionary? And why not learn that adverbs can modify nouns? – Yellow Sky Sep 30 '15 at 13:26
  • Thank you for your answers. I'm sorry if the question is inappropriate, I will refrain from asking similar ones in future, but it's not homework- I am just trying to improve my understanding of grammar and have tied myself in knots. It's difficult for me to be more specific than to say that I am just unsure what's going on in these sentences. My best guess would be that they are adverbial phrases, is that on the right lines? – Bethany6147 Sep 30 '15 at 14:17
  • @YellowSky, why not read the Wikipedia reference you cite? And why not learn it says that in the only cases that adverbs modify nouns they follow the nouns they modify? – Greg Lee Sep 30 '15 at 18:20
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    I think the question is fine -- it cites some received wisdom ("adverbs don't modify nouns"), presents counterexamples, and asks how this can be reconciled. The answer, I'd say, is that such examples show that adverbs can indeed modify nouns, or rather noun phrases. – TKR Sep 30 '15 at 18:49
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I'm not sure, but I think that "two o'clock" is a noun phrase, and in "nearly two o'clock" the "nearly" is an adverb modifying the determiner (Det) "two" within that noun phrase. The constituent structure is:

[NP [Det [Adv nearly] [Det two] ] o'clock ]

This analysis is a little tricky for your example "nearly an hour", since "nearly an" cannot stand alone, and you have to consider that "an" is a reduced form of "one". But at least that makes sense of the construction, because "nearly an hour" does mean that the quantity of hours was almost one, and the full form "nearly one hour" is an acceptable paraphrase.

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  • It's very counterintuitive (to me anyway) to make two a determiner and o'clock a noun. I'd say that two is a noun in this sentence and o'clock is modifying it. – TKR Sep 30 '15 at 18:47
  • @TKR, I classify "two o'clock" as a noun phrase because it can occur in the positions other noun phrases occur in: subject, direct object, object of preposition. The usual structure of a noun phrase is Det plus noun, and that's why I give "two o'clock" this structure. If you think that "two o'clock" is a modified noun, you should be thinking about whether it occurs in the positions that other modified nouns occur in. A green two o'clock just ran past my window. – Greg Lee Sep 30 '15 at 19:04
  • I agree that two o'clock is an NP, but I'd consider two the head. Not all NPs have a determiner, and two is semantically primary here, unlike o'clock. What would you say about It's nearly two? Is two just a determiner by itself? That doesn't seem likely. – TKR Sep 30 '15 at 19:50
  • @TKR, In "It's nearly two", "nearly two" is a NP with unspecified head, understood to mean "o'clock", and Det "nearly two". And "two" is, as you suggest, a Det, modified by "nearly". – Greg Lee Sep 30 '15 at 19:58
  • Well, noun ellipsis is pretty restricted in English, but in any case o'clock is pretty clearly not a noun: *the o'clock, *an o'clock, etc. I don't see the problem with making the numeral the head: "It's two" strikes me as completely equivalent to "It's February", where "February" is clearly a bare-noun NP. – TKR Sep 30 '15 at 20:49

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