Smashing it and scraping through (The language of success, Part 2)

smiling young woman showing A+ test results to the camera
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by Kate Woodford

In the first of our ‘success’ posts, we looked mainly at nouns in this area (Triumphs and success stories). Today, we’re focusing on verbs and phrasal verbs that mean ‘succeed’ and, as ever, looking at the important differences in meaning between them.

We’ll start with single verbs. There are a few informal synonyms for ‘succeed’ and they’re used a lot in current, spoken English, especially about successful performances (sporting, theatrical or otherwise). For example, people often say that someone nailed something (or nailed it), meaning they did something very successfully. The verb smash is used nowadays in the same way:

He nailed the penalty and put France in the lead. / That was a great talk. You totally nailed it!

What a performance! You smashed it!

Meanwhile, the informal verb ace is used to say that someone was very successful in an exam:

He didn’t do so well in German, but he aced his French test.

The verb arrive is sometimes used informally with the meaning ‘to finally achieve career success’. We also use the slightly informal phrase make it to mean ‘succeed in a particular profession’, especially acting, singing, dancing, etc:

Now, with my own chauffeur to take me wherever I pleased, I knew I had arrived.

He was told he would never make it as an actor.

Let’s look at the phrasal verbs in this area. If you pull off or bring off something difficult or daring, you succeed in doing it well:

It’s a challenging role for such a young actor, but he pulls it off. / This huge hall is a difficult space, but the Danish singer brought it off splendidly.

If you sail through something, especially a test, you succeed very easily:

He seemed the ideal candidate and sailed through the interview. / My older brother had sailed through his exams.

A business, product or career that takes off, becomes successful:

Their jeans sold well but their sportswear never took off. / Her acting career had just started to take off.

The phrasal verb come off also means ‘succeed’ and is usually used in the negative:

They were chasing a contract but, sadly, it didn’t come off.

A project that comes together is successful after all the many things that need to happen do so in time:

It was a huge event to organize, but I’m pleased to say it came together on the day.

Two useful phrasal verbs convey the sense of only just succeeding in doing something. If you scrape through an exam or competition, you succeed but only by a few points. Meanwhile, someone who muddles through, manages a situation successfully but rather chaotically, having little knowledge and no strategy:

She scraped through her final exams. / They scraped through in third place.

Like most parents of young children, we had no idea what we were doing – we just muddled through.

Our next (and final) post on this theme will look at idioms that mean ‘succeed’.

13 thoughts on “Smashing it and scraping through (The language of success, Part 2)

  1. Denis

    Hi Kate,
    I relished reading this article. At the same time, I’d really like you to demystify the following query for me.
    In Part 1, you say that if someone has the Midas touch, they seem to succeed in everything they do. As you can see, you sort of generalize by saying ‘in everything they do’. On the contrary, this dictionary, along with another reputable one, says that if someone has the Midas touch, that person is financially successful in everything they do. So, is ‘the Midas touch’ used to talk about a person succeeding in everything or, more specifically, about someone being financially successful in everything they do? Is it about any success or only financial success?

    Kind regards

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! It’s my impression that it means to be successful at everything you turn your hand to, though of course this often means being financially successful. Perhaps I should have written ‘to be successful…, especially financially’.

    2. Mme.G

      Ciao Denis, I like your question and I want to unravel your doubt through the myth….I hope U don’t mind if I do it in my native language =)
      Re Mida fu toccato dal privilegio di poter chiedere agli dei di esudire un suo desiderio, scelse di ricevere il dono di trasformare in oro tutto ciò che entrasse in contatto con il tocco della sua mano;
      ma il poveretto non si rendeva conto che da quel momento non avrebbe piu potuto toccare nulla pena la perdita della vita stessa poiché tutto e tutti si trasformavano in metallo, quantunque fosse il metallo più prezioso;
      Mida implorò gli dei di accettare la sua rinuncia a tale dono……puoi andare a cercare tu stesso come finisce la leggenda ed anche immaginare il messaggio universale che essa trasporta in ogni luogo e in ogni tempo.

      1. Denis

        Hi. Yes, I read about the legend. That’s why I asked for clarification. To cut a long story short, I read that Midas was a legendary king of Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey). In return for a good deed, he was granted one wish by the god Dionysus, and asked for the power to turn everything he touched into gold. When he discovered to his horror that his touch had turned his food and drink—and even his daughter—to gold, he begged Dionysus to take back the gift, and Dionysus agreed to do so. When “Midas touch” is used today, the moral of this tale of greed is usually ignored. Thus, Midas touch is an uncanny ability for making money in every venture. Indeed, generally speaking, the Midas touch means the ability to make everything that one is involved with very successful.
        It was really nice of you to explain anyway. Thanks.

        Best wishes

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