He missed the car in front by that much.

What does this sentence mean?

  1. Does "in front" modify "the car"?
  2. What amount does "by that much" indicate?

4 Answers 4


Imagine Obama comes up to you and says

I missed hitting the car in front (of me) by that much. I almost hit it. Luckily, I didn't.

making this gesture

Obama holding his forefinger and thumb close together but not touching

in front means located before, by that much explains the extent/degree of something (here, the distance between the two cars).

  • 7
    Except that Obama is probably not making the "that much" gesture here. This is the "standard speech hand gesture" many politicians in the US are trained to use. It puts their hand in a form that is neither offensive (as a fist might be) nor weak seeming (as an open hand might be.) It also avoids the "counting points" gesture which is considered aggressive and old fashioned. When you make the "that much" gesture, you usually hold the thumb and index finger closer to horizontal.
    – puppetsock
    Jan 19, 2021 at 16:30
  • 6
    In any case, the expression implies that the speaker is demonstrating the distance by which they missed the other car. Jan 19, 2021 at 16:36
  • 14
    Also, the expression has become common enough that these days, somebody might use it without bothering to make the accompanying hand gesture, expecting their listeners to understand the reference. It may end up becoming one of those idiomatic expressions that one just has to memorise, rather than being able to deduce its meaning from its parts.
    – G_B
    Jan 20, 2021 at 3:06
  • 7
    @puppetsock "When you make the "that much" gesture, you usually hold the thumb and index finger closer to horizontal." If anything, this site has taught me that communication is non-standard. In my case, I make this "that much" gesture vertically rather than horizontally, similarly to Obama's gesture. Context is king, and Obama's gesture is meaningless without it. I assume Andrew is intentionally "overwriting" the original context. In any case, your comment is interesting.
    – jpaugh
    Jan 20, 2021 at 16:49
  • 1
    You might say "I missed it by an inch". That's not literal -- he did not get out there with a ruler. Similarly, the gesture would not be a literal distance, so any actual illustration is not necessary. Jan 20, 2021 at 19:20

Yes, "in front" modifies "the car." It tells you which car he missed.

The phrase "by that much" is a cultural thing. One source of popularity is a 1965-1970 TV show called "Get Smart." The main character, Maxwell Smart (doing the hand gesture in the image), would explain to The Chief, that some bad thing had been narrowly avoided. Often the "it" that was missed would be something in the general location of some unfortunate man's groin.

enter image description here

  • 9
    I don’t know if Get Smart was necessarily that much of a contributor to the phrase’s popularity, but good answer nonetheless. Jan 20, 2021 at 4:25
  • 11
    "a very old TV show"—now listen here, you young whippersnapper… Jan 20, 2021 at 10:14
  • 6
    @Fivesideddice While we can't easily determine how much influence Get Smart had in popularizing the phrase, I always hear Maxwell Smart's voice whenever I read this phrase. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Jan 21, 2021 at 2:14
  • 1
    Maxwell Smart almost always used it in an exagerated, comical way. Like, this example about the picture of "President Goldwater" on a $1000 bill. Chief says Goldwater lost the election by 17 million votes - Max says "Missed it by that much."
    – JRE
    Jan 21, 2021 at 9:22

Correct - the car (that was) in front is the one that was missed.

The amount indicated has to be deduced from context. Usually, there is a visual indication accompanying the speech, but the phrase could be used on radio or in writing. In this context, we can tell that the speaker is emphasising that an accident almost happened, so we imagine "by that much" to be a very small amount.

When something is missed by a large amount, a different idiom is used. For example:

The footballer missed the goal by half a mile!

(If not clear, that's using exaggeration to mean "a large distance")

So the original sentence could be rewritten as

He very nearly hit the car in front.


The other answers are all correct and quite complete.

Note however that just to make matters worse, this type of phrase that can further be used sarcastically (or is it ironically?!?). And when used in this way, the reverse idea can actually be meant. For example if my friend, after watching my attempted putt for birdie in golf, said:

You missed it by that much!! (perhaps while making the same 2-finger gesture)

... I might be on my way to making quadruple bogey.

English can certainly be silly complicated!

It is most likely that

He missed the car in front by that much.

was intended to mean he missed by a very small distance. But it is not impossible that it instead is meant to indicate that he crashed into the car in extreme or amusing fashion, if it fits the context better. Tone of voice can often be used as a signal (sarcasm will usually be said in an exaggerated, emphatic tone).

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