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Close encounters

Q: When I was younger, I didn’t hear anyone say “close with,” but now I hear it all the time. Example: “She’s close with her sister.” For me, it should be “close to.” I did a Google search, however, and got millions of hits for “close with.” Am I crazzzy?

A: No, you’re not crazzzy! The usual preposition here is “to,” as in “He was close to his grandfather.”

Other prepositions are commonly used with different senses of “close.” For instance, “He’s close [i.e., stingy] with a dollar,” and “They’re close [secretive] about their private lives.”

But when “close” means “intimate” or “near,” the usual preposition is “to.”

Still, we sometimes read and hear “close with,” as in “He’s always been close with his cousin Frank,” or “Julia is very close with her friend Amy.”

Our guess is that this usage has been influenced by similar “with” phrases—“friendly with,” “intimate with,” “on good terms with,” and “tight with,” a slang phrase that’s been around since the 1950s. Perhaps people are extending these “with” usages to include “close.”

In fact, the preposition “with” can imply a more personal interaction than “to.” For instance, we recognize that the phrase “talk (or speak) with” implies a greater intimacy than “talk (or speak) to,” and this recognition may have influenced the use of “close with.”

By the way, Google search results are often misleading. When we searched for “I was close with him,” for example, Google reported 4,430,000 results. But when we went to the last page of the results, we found that the actual number was 127.

As for the etymology, “close” showed up in writing around 1275 as a verb meaning “to stop an opening; to shut; to cover,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb came into Middle English from the Old French clore, which in turn came from the Latin verb claudere (to shut, to close).

Adjective and adverb forms came along in the late 1300s, with the adjective generally meaning closed or shut, and the adverb meaning in proximity to.

It wasn’t until about 1500 that the adjective “close” took on meanings having to do with nearness of one kind or another, whether “in space, time, form, or state,” as the OED says.

The primary notion here was of “having intervening space or spaces closed up,” Oxford explains, “whereby the parts are in immediate contact with, or near to each other.”

In the latter part of the 15th century, people began using the adjective “close” in another way, to describe people and relationships as “closely attached, intimate, confidential.”

The OED’s first example is from the writings of the historian Raphael Holinshed (1577): “Letters sente to him from some close friendes.”

Unfortunately, none of the OED’s citations for this sense of “close” show it preceding a preposition, as in “he was close to his colleagues.”

Nevertheless, “to” has long been the preferred preposition following “close” in the sense of nearness. In fact, “close to” is sometimes referred to as a complex preposition in itself.

The Oxford English Grammar, by Sidney Greenbaum, includes “close to” in a list of complex prepositions. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) notes: “Some grammarians treat close to, as in he was standing close to the door, as a complex preposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language goes further and says that “close” by itself is sometimes a preposition rather than an adjective.

In discussing “near,” “close,” and “far,” the Cambridge Grammar says they “belong to both categories” (adjective and preposition), “though the prepositional uses are much more common than the adjectival.”

The book says all three words can be attributive adjectives (that is, adjectives that precede a noun), as in “a near relative, close friends, the far side of the building.

In addition, the adjective “close” can follow what it modifies—that is, it can be a predicate adjective—as in the Cambridge Grammar’s example: “Kim and Pat are getting very close (in the sense of close friends).”

But Cambridge would consider “close” and the other two words prepositions, not adjectives, in phrases like “close to election day, “near the city,” and “far from their house.”

When they act as prepositions, Cambridge says, they behave in some respects like adjectives. For example, they’re “gradable”—that is, they can be modified by “very” and “too.” And they have comparative and superlative forms (“closer to” … “closest to”).

But there are differences between “near,” “close,” and “far” when used as prepositions.

For example, Cambridge notes, “near” as a preposition can be followed by a noun phrase (“near/nearer the pool”) or a “to-phrase” (“near/nearer to the pool”).

But the grammar book says “close takes only a to phrase and far only a from phrase” (“close/closer to the pool” … “far/farther from the pool”).

The notion that “close” and “to” are paired in this sense is reiterated elsewhere in the Cambridge Grammar; “close” is included in a list of prepositions where “for the most part the to phrase complement is obligatory.”

Getting back to your question, will “close with” eventually be considered normal in the intimate sense? As we’ve often said on the blog, only time will tell.

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