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I think highly of him.

I know the meaning is "I praise him." But I wonder what "highly" modifies.

Can I say "I think that he is high."?

The sentences with the similar structure are :

I thought poorly of him.

I speak ill of him.

  • Highly there is part of the verb phrase, "to think highly of {someone}". To hold someone in esteem; to consider someone to have very good qualities or to be of very good character. High as an adjective would not mean the same thing as "to think highly of"; nor would "poor" and "ill" used adjectivally mean the same thing they do in the verb phrase. I think ill of him <> I think he is ill. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 5 '15 at 10:55
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It modifies "think".

Keep in mind that "to think highly of" is (as commenter TRomano pointed out) a verb phrase. It functions as a unit, and so it's not necessarily going to break down neatly when analysed. With that warning out of the way, let's analyse it!

"Highly" is an adverb, modifying the verb "think". I think of him. How do I think of him? Highly!

("How" here means "in what way" or "with what kind of thoughts", not "by what means"... I think of him by using my brain, of course!)

So, your rearrangement, "I think that he is high," is not correct. (It's also amusing; "high" is an informal way of saying "intoxicated, especially on illegal drugs".)

A possible rearrangement would be, "I think of him in a way that is high." But this is where analysis can get us into trouble. That is not a suitable way to express our meaning here. While "highly" is the adverb form of "high", you can't really replace it with "high". Instead, you would have to use something else, like "I think of him in a way that is positive", or "I think of him with approval".

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I would tend to see the expression "to think highly of sb" as an idiom, because this adverb highly is not exactly an adverb of manner describing the way of the thinking. Not the way of thinking is high - that would not make much sense. Our esteem of some person is high. So if we wanted to formulate the idea clearly we had to say:

  • I think with high esteem of him.

At some time and somehow a shorter formula was found: I think highly of him.

And if we analyse this adverb we realise that this adverb behaves a bit differently from normal adverbs of manner. That's why I would label this expression as an idiom.

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