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I am trying to understand the difference between these two phrases

  • touch and go
  • hit and miss

Both apparently mean something like "almost certain to succeed", or "nearly a given", but there's some difference in usage or meaning which means they're not exactly equivalent somehow.

Some examples:

  • It's hit-and-miss whether Ben will pass that exam.
  • It's touch-and-go whether Ben will pass that exam.

Can someone explain the difference?

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Actually, "hit-and-miss" is incorrect in this situation. From this English Language Usage question (emphasis mine):

Hit and miss refers to multiple tries.

Hit or miss refers to a single try.

In this case, if the exam can only be taken once (which I am assuming to be so), then it would be "hit-or-miss".


The definition of hit-and/or-miss, from TheFreeDictionary is:

Sometimes good or successful, sometimes not; having mixed or unpredictable results; random, aimless, careless, or haphazard. (Hyphenated if used before a noun.)

while the definition of touch-and-go, also from TheFreeDictionary is:

Extremely uncertain as to the outcome of something. (Hyphenated if used before a noun.)

The main difference is that "touch-and-go" is for an event that will always be uncertain, so in context to the question, it means that it is unknown if Ben will pass this exam. "Hit-or-miss" in the same context would mean that it is random and unknown whether Ben will pass or not. Just remember the difference between "hit-and-miss" and "hit-or-miss".

  • You made a great clarification between hit and miss and hit or miss. However, I think you're misconstruing the definition you gave of touch-and-go. Extremely uncertain is something very different from extremely unlikely. So, I thought this was a great answer right up to your conclusion which I think is misleading. – Jason Bassford Aug 3 '18 at 16:10
  • @JasonBassford Thanks for catching that. I've edited my answer to fix it, but let me know if I should do anything else. – TheRealLester Aug 3 '18 at 16:34
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Hit or miss (a good correction by TheRealLester) means very much "Either this will happen or it won't." If shooting a bullet at a target, you will either hit the target, or miss the target. It is a singular action, and there is either full success or failure with immediate results and no in-between.

When I think of touch and go, though, it seems like more of a process. Like failure could happen at any moment. A touch-and-go landing of an airplane, for example, could prove disastrous at any moment, but could seem (risky, but) fine (up until it all goes wrong.)

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For the case of Ben passing the exam, "hit-or-miss" is the only option that makes sense. As @TheRealLester mentioned, "hit-or-miss" essentially means 'having unpredictable results; random', so the situation here is that Ben doesn't really know enough to guarantee passing the exam, and only by some lucky guessing is he likely to get enough questions correct for a passing grade.

"Touch-and-go", as @SarahStark mentioned, is much more about a process or a duration: there is a period of time during which failure is not only possible, it actually appears likely, and success involves a sustained effort.

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For the case of Ben passing the exam, "touch-and-go" is the only option that makes sense.

"Touch-and-go" is used in a situation where you are very close to succeeding, with the prediction that you might just scrape through and succeed, or that you just miss the target by a small margin. For example, a job needs finishing at 2pm, it's 12pm know and I estimate it will take me two hours. It's touch-and-go whether I'm finished in time or not.

"Hit-or-miss" is used when you have no clear concept what to do to succeed, so you very randomly succeed sometimes and fail at other times. For example, Joe has no idea what shirt and what tie go together well, so when he wears a shirt and tie it is hit-or-miss whether they match or not. Sometimes Joe is lucky, sometimes he is not.

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