I am bringing in the washing when suddenly it starts to rain. I have to do it really fast or else the washing is going to get wet.

If I translate from Vietnamese to English, it would be "I have to race with time".

Is it idiomatic to say "I have to race with time" to mean I have to do a thing very fast and finish it before something bad might happen?

An English idiom that I thought of is "I have to make it in time". But we often use "make it" to mean to reach a place in time.

Can we use it to mean to reach a goal (like finishing bringing in the washing) in time?

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    No, you can't fiddle with the standard idiomatic form, which is [to be in] a race against time. Dictionary definition here. Commented Apr 30 at 2:02
  • 2
    I'd say "I'm racing the clock" if you're currently hurrying. Constructions with "have to" are better for cases where the 'race' hasn't started yet. Commented Apr 30 at 4:27
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    "I'm racing against time" is perfectly idiomatic. "Don't interrupt me, I'm racing against time here!"
    – TonyK
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:10
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    depends on context if we are "up against a deadline" we may say our current position is that we are "running out of time" see books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – K J
    Commented Apr 30 at 23:13
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    Although I agree with the other contributors that "I'm in a race with time" isn't truly idiomatic, if someone actually said that to me, I don't think I would dwell on it much. It sounds pretty natural to me and even a bit poetic, despite how it's not one of the common stock phrases of that sort ("It's a race against time," "It's a race against the clock," "The minutes are ticking down," "Only seconds left to go," etc.). Knowing in what contexts you can deviate a bit from common idioms like this and have it "still work" is a challenging skill in any language, though, of course. Commented May 1 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


The idiomatic expression is "race against time".

To race with something or somebody can also mean you are competing against them, so arguably it does mean the same thing. But idioms are recognisable and when they are changed it is noticeable and quite jarring.

This ngram of the two phrases shows that the idiomatic expression is well used and your alternative barely registers. So the direct answer to your question is no, it isn't the idiomatic choice.

  • 13
    I would add that you are normally in a race against time, rather than saying "I have to race against time". In the past tense, "I had to race against time" sounds quite natural to me, however (though you could still say "I was in a race against time". See this ngram for a comparison of some alternative phrases I thought about: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – aantia
    Commented Apr 30 at 10:31
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    FWIW I don't think I'd structure my speech to say "I have to"/"I had to". Generally I would say something using "it was a race against time" or "it's a race against time" rather than referencing myself; the context provides the people involved. Using "I" (or "we") doesn't sound so natural to me.
    – roganjosh
    Commented Apr 30 at 16:34
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    @aantia alternatively, and commonly in the UK, "it was [or will be] a race against time". It's not such much the in that matters, except that it's the preposition often used for races
    – Chris H
    Commented May 1 at 8:54
  • I'm in a race against time.
    – Neil_UK
    Commented May 2 at 13:18
  • “be in a race against time” is the form that sprang to my mind; but I would probably not say it myself, unless in irony, because it makes me think of over-dramatic narration. Commented May 2 at 18:55

"I have to race with time" is not idiomatic, but here are some options that are:

  • I have to race the clock.

  • I have to beat the clock.

  • I have to beat my record.

  • I have to beat my best time.

  • I have to beat my deadline.

  • I have to finish in time.

  • I have to make it in time. (yes, you're right that this often talks about arriving to a physical place but can also be used figuratively where "it" is the state of completing something.)

In general, I think that "I have to race the clock" is probably exactly what you are looking for. It invokes an image of a tightly timed task that must be completed before the timer runs out.

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    Google Books doesn't contain a single written instance of I have to race the clock, but there are at least dozens - possibly hundreds - of published instances of I'm in a race against time. Commented Apr 30 at 12:37
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    @FumbleFingers There are quite a few instances of the phrase "racing the clock" though. Commented Apr 30 at 13:43
  • Define "quite a few". I'm sure they'll be next to nothing by comparison with being "in a race against time". Especially bearing in mind that "racing [against] the clock" is well-established as a literal usage (for athletes in training, etc.), but "a race against time" is always "figurative". And stereotypically, it's often the entire human race that's in a race against time to resolve some existential threat (the two different "races" there being entirely unrelated! :) Commented Apr 30 at 14:57
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    I’ve also heard “race the clock.” To me, “beat my record” means something different: doing the thing faster than I ever have before.
    – Davislor
    Commented Apr 30 at 15:53
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    Most of these examples are not a good fit for an abstract lack of time.
    – MikeB
    Commented Apr 30 at 15:57

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