According to linear theory the wave intensity of a slowly varying wave train becomes particularly large near caustics. In this paper it is shown how the waves are modified when the wave intensity is sufficient for nonlinear effects to begin to be important. Two types of near-linear caustics can arise in which nonlinearity either tends to advance or to retard the reflexion of waves from the caustic. General examples are given in terms of one-dimensional wave propagation, and of propagation in a uniform medium. Detailed consideration is given to a particular example: small-amplitude water waves on deep currents. This helps to provide an interpretative framework for the large-amplitude results presented in the companion paper (Peregrine & Thomas 1979). For the more exceptional case of triple roots, or cusped caustics, the increase in wave intensity is even more dramatic. In three appendices the analysis for caustics is extended to some higher-order cases.