In one of my native tongues, there's an idiomatic expression, the semi-literal translation of which is "the 'being close' of yours won't shoot the hare". In another, there's something along the lines of "one can't strike down a bird with an 'almost'".

Both expressions are used to comment on someone's failure followed by a presentation of an excuse aiming to explain said failure as being so close to a success that it might as well be regarded as the such.

Expressing disapproval by the observers can then be carried out by pointing out that being close to success or almost succeeding isn't actually being successful.

I.e. one doesn't get the hare by shooting close to it and one doesn't get the bird by almost striking it down. The animals will most likely take off and the only thing one sees is their butts decreasing in size.

Correspondingly, getting a score of 499, when the number required to pass is 500 or more, can be seen as being close to a success but still, strictly regarded, admitting the examinee to the same group as other failures. If such person tries to point out that they were really, really close to passing, a disapproving recipient could point out that they'll still have to retake the exam, independently of how close to a success they were (c.f. by how little they have failed).

What is the idiomatic way to express that in English, if such exists?

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    Um... I guess that you meant to say idiomatic rather than idiotic? (btw, I didn't downvote this question). Jan 11, 2014 at 15:53
  • Auto-miss-spell function, hehe. Thanks! Jan 11, 2014 at 16:06
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    @DamkerngT. Don't worry, I didn't think you downvoted, really. You commented, which proves that you are capable of building up a sentence, while the downvoter apparently is an illiterate, haha. In my opinion, downvote shouldn't be allowed when not providing a guiding hand as to what should be improved. Kudos for the great eyes! Jan 11, 2014 at 16:10
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    As a tangential aside, I can tell you that your neighbours to the southwest say, nærved og næsten slår ingen mand af hesten (‘almost and nearly will knock no man off his horse’). Jan 12, 2014 at 0:32
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    @KonradViltersten How about so near yet so far?
    – Geek
    Jan 12, 2014 at 9:03

10 Answers 10


As far as idioms or colloquial expressions go, here are some to consider:

Close, but no cigar. Described in Phrase Finder as to fall just short of a successful outcome and receiving nothing for your efforts.

Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. This expression, which should be self-explanatory, is used in response to someone who claims credit for their effort in almost attaining a goal, but falling short and missing.

Second place is the first loser. (Or second place is first place for losers.) This seems to have come into use more recently, and is associated with Tiger Moms who insist that their children must win any competition and they actually will browbeat their children for anything less.

  • Hahaha - while the first is easy to understand the origin of, where does the other come from? Why would almost count in these items? Play on words that I'm missing? Jan 11, 2014 at 16:16
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    Nevermind - I got it after some googling. You can be close and still hit the target! "Horseshoes" is a game, by the way. Didn't know that. Jan 11, 2014 at 16:21
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    I've always heard the second one as 'close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades' Jan 11, 2014 at 17:19
  • @DrewChristianson that version makes it easier to understand. Perhaps the "almost" should be in inverted commas?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 11, 2014 at 18:28
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    @KonradViltersten You can say both but inverted commas is more BrEng, another difference (perhaps one you're more familiar with) the Brits say, full stop, whereas Americans say, period.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 11, 2014 at 19:51

In English, it would be "A miss is as good as a mile". Which doesn't make sense when you think about it..

This means that almost succeeding is the same as actually failing.

miss is as good as a mile Prov. Almost having done something is the same as not having done it at all, since in both cases the thing does not get done. We only missed the train by one minute? Well, a miss is as good as a mile. See also: good, mile, miss

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


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    It makes sense to me. I read it as literally meaning "If you were off by even a little bit and missed the target, it's the same as being a mile off--you missed either way."
    – user28567
    Jan 11, 2014 at 16:11
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    When you say: "Which doesn't make sense when you think about it.." you appear to be contradicting yourself. "Almost having done something is the same as not having done it at all" This makes quite a lot of sense in many contexts. It is true that almost reaching your final goal at the gym is not the same as almost getting to the gym but being foiled by the doughnut shop. As it is, I think this is the best idiom of them all, because it applies less awkwardly to more contexts than the other suggestions.
    – Aaron Hall
    Jan 11, 2014 at 19:38
  • I've always felt it quite a cumbersome phrase, myself. The use of the word "good" seems out of place. But then, it's things like this that make English such a fun language. :)
    – Dave M
    Jan 11, 2014 at 19:59

There is also Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing, attributed to UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell ("Red") Sanders.

Also Do... or do not. There is no try, according to Yoda.

And for the language scholars, there is The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, according to Mark Twain.


You don't win silver — you lose gold

attributed to a Nike publicity campaign featuring Andre Agassi that ran during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

First prize, as before, is a Cadillac. Second is a set of steak knives. Third is you're fired

from the legendary film of the early-90s Glengarry Glen Ross


In England 'No prize for second place' is typical. Usage can be found e.g. in the lyrics of a Jimmy Barnes song – No Second Prize.

  • Try to elaborate, include some references, usage examples or anything else relevant that you happen to find reliable and credible.
    – Kris
    Jan 12, 2014 at 11:33

I believe that you almost answered yourself already, especially the part "being close to success or almost succeeding isn't actually being successful."

I would like to suggest almost success.

(Inspired by a familiar movie title, "Almost Famous".)

  • I understand what you mean but I disagree. The question is looking for the idiomatic expression. I was curious if one has to just say it in plain English or if there's a neat way to put it. Jan 11, 2014 at 16:12

The wording "close is only good" sounds odd and awkward to me. There must be regional variations. I'm from the US state of Ohio. What I have heard and read is "Closeness only counts in horseshoes" The hand grenade part is often omitted but I think has become more common over the last several decades of my life. I hypothesize it is a latter addition to a much older idiom.


Just to throw out a couple of colloquialisms that might be inspiring:

"That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee." (Adjust price and product as necessary, the idea being that you're describing the actual cost of a common object, so the additional "almost achievement" adds nothing to your offering and thus is obviously worth nothing.) This is more generally used to describe an "accomplishment" that isn't worth much. For example being given a new title at work, but no additional rewards, responsibilities, or privileges.

"If if's and but's were candy and nuts, what a wonderful Christmas we'd have." Pretty obscure and definitely a rural kind of saying, and not widely used. More targeted at excuse making itself rather than almost succeeding.

  • Woah... 50 cents for a cup of coffee?! That's very rural pricing and requires a heck of an adjustment. I just paid 45 of Viking coins for a cup (that's roughly 7 of Yankee money and 5 Euro). Let alone the cup was big and the girl selling pleasant for the eyes but still... Jan 12, 2014 at 23:01

Close enough is never close enough if you missed the target.

Good enough is never good enough if you didn't do the job.


close is only good in horseshoes and handgrenades

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    See Jim's answer above.
    – bib
    Jan 11, 2014 at 22:54

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