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There is the following statement in Jeffery Archer’s fiction “The Fourth Estate,” of which I admit I’m a terribly slow reader:

“The tactics made it possible for Armstrong Communication to declare a profit of 90,000 the year he and Hahn (co-owner) parted, and a year later the Manchester Guardian named Richard Armstrong Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Charlotte reminded him that he was nearer forty than thirty. “True,” he replied, “but never forget that all my rivals had a twenty-year start on me.” - P359

I surmise “a twenty-year start on me” equals ““a twenty-year head start on me.”

Is it customary to omit ‘head’ of the idiom, ‘have a head start on’ by replacing it with a placeholder such as X-year / mile / pound/ class, and grade as used here, when quantification is required?

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I must be honest - I'm not actually certain exactly what Armstrong/Archer meant there. I believe Archer came from quite a humble background - my best guess is that he means his fictional character didn't have the benefit of wealthy/influential parents for the first 20 years of his life, but I wouldn't like to bet the farm on that interpretation. – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '13 at 20:40
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Your surmise is correct - it means the same as "a twenty-year head start on me".

In my experience, it is not customary to omit the 'head' in that situation. It actually sounds a touch awkward to me, but it is certainly a legitimate usage. Consider this definition from the Macmillan dictionary:

start (noun): an advantage that you have in a race or competition, by beginning it in a better position than the other people

The women runners are given a 50-metre start.

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster does not seem to list this definition. I wonder if it's more commonly a BrE usage?

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I think it's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. In Google Books, gave him a few minutes head start and the same without "head" both have a couple of dozen hits. It's much the same with similar search terms. – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '13 at 20:48
FumbleFingers. Though not exactly the same with ‘Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other,’ we have the similar saying, “There’s no big difference between 50 steps and 100 steps. This is the borrowing from Chinese maxim, 五十歩笑百歩- 'wu shi bu xiao bai bu' in the Mencius.- Emperor Hui of the State of Liang (BC 4 century) says: There were two soldiers who were defeated in a bottle. One retreated fifty paces and the other retreated a hundred paces. The former mocked the latter because of his retreat of one hundred paces. – Yoichi Oishi Jun 4 '13 at 22:44

My "gut feeling" is that eliding certain words from stock phrases is more common than one might think. Without having researched this gut feeling, I can at least give some examples of how stock phrases can "shrink." Take two wrestlers talking to one another:

"You have a twenty-pound advantage on me" versus "You have twenty pounds on me."

Here, advantage is elided. Or to stay with your "head" example, two weight-loss dieters who started losing weight at different times are talking, and one says to the other:

"You have a 20-pound head start on me" versus "You have a 20-pound start on me."

Or how about two sophomores who decide to see who can graduate with the higher grade point average (with 4.0 being the highest possible GPA):

"But right now your GPA is 3.85 and mine is only 3.80. You have a [point zero five] head start on me" versus "You have a [point zero five] start on me."

To switch things up a bit, it's not unusual in American English to elide words from other stock phrases, perhaps not in the same way as in your example, of course, but as a sort of shorthand:

"You know what they say: 'Hindsight is 20/20'" versus "You know what they say about hindsight."

Here, the speaker knows the listener will supply the missing "is 20/20."


"You know what they say about the early bird" versus "You know what they say: 'The early bird catches the worm.'"


"On Tuesday, Fred did an armchair-quarterback analysis of Monday's football game" versus "On Tuesday, Fred did an armchair analysis of Monday's football game."

And so it goes. Which reminds me . . ..

Person A: "How's it going?" Person B: "It goes" versus "It's going well, thank you."

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