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Beat me to it by about 30 seconds
(Source: The first comment under this answer.)

I can't find "beat to" in my phrasal verb look up table, nor this usage makes any sense to me. But it looks like I'm the only one who didn't understand it, because nobody asked him "What did you mean by that comment?" there.

Can you please explain this sentence to me?

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1  
Its an idiom--idioms.thefreedictionary.com/_/dict.aspx?word=beat+to –  simchona Dec 24 '12 at 11:17
    
Think of it as a race. The other person got to the finishing line before you did. He beat you to it. –  spiceyokooko Dec 24 '12 at 11:25
    
Close (general reference). –  MετάEd Dec 24 '12 at 16:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The core idiom here is [WINNER] beat [RIVAL], where beat means outdo, surpass. The full idiom is [WINNER] beat [RIVAL] to [GOAL] by [MARGIN], in which the Goal and Margin phrases are optional.

It may be used in a variety of competitive circumstances — for instance, scientific, political or financial as well as athletic.

  • The Soviets beat the U.S. to space. —[MARGIN] is not specified.
  • Newton apparently developed the calculus first, but Leibnitz beat him to publication by three years. —[WINNER] is ‘Leibnitz’, [RIVAL] is Newton (‘him’), [GOAL] is ‘publication’, and [MARGIN] is ‘three years’.
  • Claudius beat him to it. —a gloss on ‘Popped in between th’election and my hopes’. [RIVAL] is Hamlet (‘him’) and [GOAL] is election to the kingship (‘it’); [MARGIN] is not expressed.
  • Boeing last beat Airbus in 2007, by 75 jets. —[GOAL], unexpressed, is to score more orders.
  • Man o’ War beat Hoodwink by more than 100 lengths. —[GOAL], unexpressed, is the finishing line.
  • Auburn beat Alabama by a field goal. —[GOAL], unexpressed, is to score more points before play ends; [MARGIN] is expressed by ‘a field goal’, which scores three points.

Accordingly:

  • Beat me to it by about 30 seconds! —[GOAL] is first publication of this answer (‘it’), [RIVAL] is the poster, Alfred Centauri (‘me’), [MARGIN] is ‘about 30 seconds’, and [WINNER] is ellipted: ‘you’, The Photon, to whom the comment is addressed.
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Beat to means outrun, outdo, be first.

When someone beats you to something by 30 seconds, it means they did something 30 seconds sooner than you.

As others have already commented, you can think of it as a race, although it usually is not an official, literal race. The race to answer questions on Stack sites also counts as a race :)

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2  
Except for when someone beats you to death, which itself has two parses, neither of which is this one. –  tchrist Dec 24 '12 at 15:26

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