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I'm curious about the difference between sentences 1 and 2:

  1. The company is just about ticking over.
  2. The company is only just ticking over.

I guess the first describes a better situation than the second, doesn't it?
But different people seem to have different opinions on this.

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  • 2
    I’m curious about what it means for a company to tick over.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 1:15
  • Whatever it means, sentence one implies that ticking over marks the end of something. Sentence 2 implies it marks the beginning.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 1:18
  • I'd rather be only just ticking over than just about ticking over. The "just about" implies has not yet. Naturally, it's important to consider whether the company is say a startup, or a long going concern producing obsoleted products. Ticking over: dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/tick-over To not tick over is a bad thing, but that 'just about' might be interpreted as 'is about to start' ticking over, perhaps wildly. Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 1:47
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    'just ticking over' is a metaphor, comparing the company to an engine. You could also just 'just getting by' or 'just barely making it' or 'just barely making ends meet'.
    – John Feltz
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 2:19
  • The key could be how to interpret the opposite of "ticking over". If a vehicle is ticking over, it is working but not in a powerful way. What's a vehicle like if it is not ticking over? Theoretically, there are two polar possibilities: it cold be motionless, or it could be working in a powerful manner. By metaphorical extension, if a company is just about (= almost) ticking over, it is not ticking over. Two polar possibilities arise: it could either be close to "motionless", i.e. almost inoperative, or be acquiring some business.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 5:02

1 Answer 1

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As Wayfaring Stranger pointed out in the comments, ticking over means "continuing to work".

Just about ticking over means "almost ticking over" or "very close to ticking over". The phrase carries a connotation of anticipation; it implies that the company may be ticking over in the near future.

Only just ticking over actually has two possible meanings: "barely ticking over"1 and "recently ticking over"2. The first meaning has a more pessimistic connotation: the company is ticking over, but it could be doing a lot better, and it could stop ticking over at any time. The second meaning is more neutral; it's just a statement about when something happened.

Which situation is "better" depends on which meaning of only just you pick, as well as your expectations for the future.

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