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Mr. Hobson often rented horses to the students at Cambridge University. But, he did not really trust them to take good care of the horses. So, he had a rule that prevented the students from riding his best horses. They could take the horse that was nearest the stable door. Or, they could not take any horse at all.

I think in this sentence, "nearest" is a preposition, but how can it have superlative degree?If it is a adjective, how parse this sentence?

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Parts of speech are a matter of theory. Different people have different theories, and as a result, they classify words in different ways.

The goal of a theory is usually to describe the behavior we see as simply as possible. Instead of describing each word on its own, we start out by lumping words together when we can describe them the same way. But there are always a few exceptions which don't fit cleanly into our categories, and we need to describe them separately. Either we describe an exception on its own, or we pick the closest category and come up with a list of ways it differs from the usual members of that category.

In this case, the simplest answer is probably to say that it's a preposition. It passes all the usual tests for a preposition. But near has a couple features very few prepositions do: it inflects! It has comparative and superlative forms, nearer and nearest. That's quite unusual! And it can be modified by adverbs (as in very near the window or much nearer the window). That's unusual, too! Here's what Quirk et al. (1985, p.663) have to say:

The simple preposition near and the complex prepositions near to and close to (all locative; cf 9.20) satisfy all three criteria for prepositions. At the same time, they have certain affinities with adjectives and adverbs. Near (to) and close to are the only prepositions which have both comparison and intensification[.] (emphasis added)

But this is certainly not the only possible answer. You can argue for classifying it other ways. The fact is, it's different from other prepositions. But it doesn't fit into any other category cleanly either. So what should we do?

The most important thing isn't what part of speech it is. Rather, the most important thing is that you understand how it's used. In this case, you can use a category like "preposition" as a starting point, and then describe how it differs from the central members of that category. So when I call near "a preposition with comparative and superlative forms that can be modified by adverbs", I'm trying my best to keep the description as simple as possible. That's all.

I suggest you come up with whatever description makes the most sense to you and use that.

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This is a tricky case. Your instinct to think of this as a preposition is sound, but, according to this entry on ELU, it's really a "sneaky adverb", because of its superlative nature.

As you will see in the linked entry, this quote from the Oxford English Dictionary is used as support:

When the noun or noun phrase is the direct complement of near , this acquires practically the force of a preposition, but differs from true prepositions in having comparative and superlative forms.

  • True, nearest modifies the conjugated verb "to be" in this case. – Metagrapher Mar 5 '14 at 7:52
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Probably the author means that the horse that was nearest to the stable door was not one of the best horses Mr. Hobson had.

This way, he prevented others using the best horses (kept away from the stable door?).

stable (n) - A farm building for housing horses or other livestock

nearest is adjective.

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    Suppose nearest is an adjective, but there is no preposition in this sentence ,and "nearest + a noun phrase" is so weird? – user48070 Mar 5 '14 at 7:56
  • +1 from me! @user48070 At first I thought the same but then thought of other examples and it sounded okay. – Maulik V Mar 5 '14 at 8:03
  • @user48070 Well, I found this - He takes out a pistol with a silencer and shoots out the street light nearest the car. – Maulik V Mar 5 '14 at 8:09

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