Flat out or at a snail’s pace? Talking about speed

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colourful illustration of three cartoon snails, illustrating the concept of talking about speed: two are looking surprised as one speeds ahead of them on a skateboard
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by Liz Walter

Today’s post looks at ways of talking about the speed at which people, vehicles, or other things move. Many of the items in this post can also be used figuratively, for instance to describe the speed of change or progress.

We often use the word pace to talk about how fast people or things are moving. Typical collocations for describing slow movements are sedate, steady, leisurely, and unhurried:

The motorcade drove at a sedate pace towards the palace.

They continued their shopping at an unhurried pace.

Sluggish is slightly more negative and implies reluctance or a lack of energy. Something moving at a snail’s pace is going very slowly and glacial describes an even more extreme slowness. We might also say that something extremely slow is agonizingly or painfully slow:

He played the sonata at a rather sluggish pace.

These ships travel at a snail’s pace compared to modern vessels.

We were frustrated by the glacial speed of the legal process.

The pace of change has been agonizingly slow.

At the other end of the scale, something or someone moving at a blistering pace (or in UK English at a cracking pace) is going very quickly:

He started the race at a blistering pace.

A simple way of saying that something, especially a vehicle, is moving fast is that it is moving at speed. If it is going as fast as possible, it is at full speed or – more informally – going flat out. Other emphatic phrases include lightning speed and breakneck speed, which often implies recklessness, while a person going as fast as their legs will carry them is running as fast as they can:

The vehicle came towards us at speed.

We won’t get there in under three hours, even if we go flat out.

She came down the stairs at breakneck speed.

They ran off as fast as their legs would carry them.

Single-word alternatives to ‘fast’ include rapid or the slightly more formal swift:

Responses to cold water include rapid breathing.

Swift action was needed to stop the spread of the disease.

In contrast, something moving very slowly – especially a vehicle – might be said to be inching along or crawling along:

Trains in the area have to crawl along because of the ancient tracks.

If you found this post useful, you could also take a look at Kate Woodford’s post about walking and running, which covers some more vocabulary related to this topic.

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