hit and/or miss

I have a little file of things I've looked up and should blog about some day, and in it is this:



...as you can see, BrE has hit and miss, but AmE is more hit or miss.

But while that was mo(u)ldering away in my desktop folder, Lauren Gawne aka Superlinguo actually did something about it. You can read her blog post on the subject here, but here's an extract.
Google n-gram confirmed variation in UK and US English, with and being the preferred form in the UK these days, and or found in US English. This didn’t appear to always be the case - hit or miss was also more common in UK texts in Google’s corpus until a couple of decades ago. [see her blog for the picture!]
The OED has hit or miss going back to at least the early 1600s, while the earliest hit and miss is 1897, which also fits with the n-gram viewer.
I wish I'd been thinking about this yesterday, when I recorded an episode of BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth with Matthew Engel, who is writing a book about the American "conquest" (his word) of the British language. It's such a clear example of British English changing something and American not. Contrary to the fear that American English is 'taking over' British English, British is very happily doing its own thing without regard for Americans in this case (and many others).

I will post a link to the 'events and media' page when I know the date of the Word of Mouth broadcast. (I'm told it's probably the last one in February.) And I'll put a link to the podcast version when that's available.

32 comments

  1. This is one of those excellent examples of when hard facts challenge one's biased assumptions. When I saw the blog post headline, I thought "hit and miss? Who says that?", only to see that it is more strongly represented in my dialect (IrEn). And of course, when I think about, I do say it, as well as, probably, "hit or miss". I wonder are there any other "X and Y" phrases that can also be with "or".

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  2. The way I've always understood and used hit and miss is as a criticism  — i.e 'done with no thought-out plan of action'. If a hit and miss operation succeeds, it's purely by luck.

    The OED and more recent on-line dictionaries give more neutral definitions

    • Whether one hits or misses; at random, at haphazard, happy-go-lucky. (OED)

    • Done or occurring at random: (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

    • unpredictable; sometimes successful, sometimes unsuccessful (Collins)

    I personally can't be that uncritical. I can't say

    *They quite rightly decided on a hit and miss procedure.
    or
    * I like the=way the operation was hit and miss.
    or even
    *It succeeded, so it didn't matter that it was hit and miss.

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  3. PS

    I never say hit or miss. I'm surprised to learn that anybody says it, and I'm even more surprised that it was current in British English as recently as 1955.

    I presume that I have an auditory filter which translates it into hit and miss before the sounds reach the conscious part of my brain.

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  4. To my American ear, 'hit or miss' makes sense, as in baseball - you can't hit AND miss (the ball) at the same time. You either hit it or you miss it. But logic often has very little to do with language.

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    1. Correspondingly, "hit and miss" sounds more logical to other ears because sometimes an effort hits the mark and sometimes it misses it.

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    2. Valerie

      as in baseball - you can't hit AND miss (the ball) at the same time. You either hit it or you miss it

      This is presumably the logic behind Collins Online Dictionary's listing of a distinct sense of AmE hit-and-miss

      1. resulting in both successes and failures
      said as of a series of attempts

      2. hit-or-miss

      Sense 1 is justified in that you can hit and miss two balls. You can hit one and miss the other.

      Collins complicate matters by having separate entries for hit-or-miss and hit or miss.

      hit or miss in American English
      without regard to success or failure; in a haphazard or aimless way

      hit-or-miss in American English
      (ˈhɪtərˈmɪs ; hitˈərmisˈ)
      adjective
      haphazard; random

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  5. I would (almost) definitely hear myself saying "hit'n'miss", to describe a random or error-prone process, where success is achieved more by luck than by good judgement...
    But here in the UK we did have a period, in the late 1950s, early 60s, where we might have said hit OR miss - does anyone remember a TV show on the BBC called Juke Box Jury? Here celebs and members of the public formed a panel and were asked for their opinions of new records, awarding them points 0-5; the cumulative score determined whether they were judged a Hit or Miss. I don't remember if any of the records subsequently confounded their verdicts - it was clearly a cheap way of playing music to the audience at home. One 'juror' was a girl from Birmingham whose 'Oi'll give it foive' was such a success that she became a regular on the show.

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    1. Janice Nicholls on Thank Your Lucky Stars.

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    2. As KeithD says, I think you are conflating two shows here, one on the BBC, one on ITV. On Juke Box Jury, a panel of four celebs would each have to choose whether the new record would be a hit or a miss, no points. Then, at the end, David Jacobs, who presented the show, would total up the hits and the misses. I think he also had a casting vote if "two say it will, two say it won't".

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    3. You are right. I had no memory of the ITV show. I checked online and it seems that many people conflate the two.
      The theme tune for Juke Box Jury was specially composed by John Barry, and was called "Hit and Miss"

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    4. In Juke Box Jury, the panel of celebs (as we might now call them) would, after discursing on the new release, each signal their verdict using a disc the size of a 45 with "HIT" written on one side and "MISS" on the other. In the event of a tie, three members of the studio audience would similarly give a verdict to break the tie. David Jacobs would then pronounce the majority decision but again without actually uttering either word, instead using a counter bell for a hit and a hooter for a miss. John Lennon caused a stir when he appeared once, by declaring every single record, including Elvis Presley's Devil In Disuise, a miss.

      Thank Your Lucky Stars was commercial TV's answer to Juke Box Jury, according to Nostalgia Central, who also say:

      "Don Moss introduced 'Spin a Disc' to the show - The famous segment where a panel of "typical teenagers" listened to the latest releases and awarded each of them points (out of five) in an obvious cloning of the Juke Box Jury format.

      Janice Nicholls, a 16 year old Black Country office clerk, became a star overnight when she uttered the immortal words "Oi'll give it foive". She remained on the panel for three years and the phrase became part of British colloquial language . . ."
      .

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  6. Four points:

    1) David Crosbie's own definition is too severely negative for me. If I use either expression it will often be mildly critical; but more like 'only partly thought-out' and not as bad as 'no thought-out plan of action'. However I also recognise a neutrally descriptive use, meaning 'doing the best in the face of uncertainty'. For a mundane example, when sorting newly washed socks into pairs (my socks differ subtly between left and right) I could be rigorous and adopt an efficient algorithm, but with only a few pairs it is often just as quick and easy to adopt a hit-and-miss approach. Almost a 'try and/to match' approach.

    2) I think I always say "a bit hit and miss", or say it in a way that somehow softens the impact. That allows David Crosbie's third example: "It succeeded, so it didn't matter that it was a bit hit and miss". I don't think that is just British mealy-mouthedness on my part. Were I describing 'no thought-out plan' I don't think I could use the bare phrase but would need something stronger, such as careless, ill-thought-out, chaotic.

    3) The baseball example seems seductively logical, but the expression is not used to describe a single attempt, not even the 'hit OR miss' version. You wouldn't say, for example, the blindingly obvious "Despite his .35 BA, with two strikes against him what the batter does with the next ball will be hit or miss". Phrases like "win or lose", "sink or swim", "all or nothing" are more appropriate for one-offs. For me it refers to something repetitive. So, negatively, a pitcher's wholly random use of curveballs could be a (metaphorically) hit and/or miss approach. Or, for my neutral meaning: "When Sudoku puzzles get really hard you can give up, learn some advanced techniques, or try a hit-and-miss approach". (I clearly have some internal rule regarding hyphenating such phrases. I tried to break it twice in this comment but failed.)

    4) Lauren Gawne distinguishes between two types of repetition: 'hit and' meaning 'sometimes' and 'hit or' meaning 'each time'. For me this is logical, but I suspect that for idiomatic use speakers have one or the other in their vocabulary and I doubt they have any such distinction in mind when they use it.

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    1. As (in this case, anyway) a typical American, it's always* "Hit or Miss" for me.

      KeithD: "Despite his .35 BA...."

      Mathematically both correct and unremarkable, but that would not be idiomatic usage for a baseball fan. Batting averages are always reported in thousandths, so a batter with a 0.35 historical probability of a hit per at bat would have a batting average of .350. And that would be orally reported as "a three-fifty batting average" or the like.

      Which I only mention because this is a usage blog. 8-)

      * With the understanding that I'm reporting my own usage, which is of deeply questionable reliability, of course.

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  7. I think that if you speak with a non-rhotic accent, especially if you have a tendency to replace final t with a glottal stop, hit and miss ("hi' 'n' miss") is easier to say.

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  8. Conversely, if you tend to substitute a d sound for final t, (the original) hit or miss is at least as easy to pronounce.

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  9. Doug, I realised when reading my comment on line that I'd missed off the zero. It seemed like such a hassle to delete and repost just for that, so I hoped no one would notice. Didn't take long, did it!

    On a related point, I do wish the Preview box was resizable and gave a proper preview instead of a measly five lines.

    On another related point, I am posting this as a separate comment because the Reply button under your post turns nicely red when I click it, but that's all it does.

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  10. More on online dictionary entries...

    OED

    • hyphenated hit-and-miss for attributive use (i.e. before the noun)

    • of 20th century quotes (excluding the technical component (hit and miss ventilator)

    .....two critical or negative

    1931 Discovery Sept. 298/1 [Without these criteria] the procedure would be unnecessarily hit-and-miss.
    1970 Morning Star 11 July 2 The pedlars of such gifts are only worried about the wastage involved..and the general hit-and-miss aspect of the whole business.

    .........two more neutral

    1955 W. W. Dendinger Compl. Boston 156 Hit-and-miss, take-a-chance breedings are fewer.
    1956 G. Taylor Silver iii. 53 A simple pattern, often seen on Communion Cups, consists of rows of ‘hit and miss’ ornament.

    Oxford Dictionaries Online

    • No entry for unhyphenated hit and miss, though several of their example quotes are unhyphenated

    • Most but not all examples seem (to me) to be negative in some way:

    ‘picking a remedy can be a bit hit-and-miss’
    ‘The novels are hit-and-miss affairs, but they have an unforgettable pungency.’
    ‘It's a hit and miss film, which will appeal to those who liked Along Came Polly.’
    ‘The best pics are the first ones I ever took, using a kids' easel, my old 35 mm SLR and hit-and-miss natural light out in the yard.’
    ‘There's music that spans the last 30 years, but the selection is pretty much hit and miss.’
    ‘Things can still be a little hit-and-miss after prime time, though, which is where we hope this late-night dining guide will come in handy.’
    ‘Our collaboration was sort of hit and miss, depending on where and what we were doing.’
    ‘Performances, however, are a hit-and-miss affair.’
    ‘Dessert in this part of town can be hit-and-miss.’
    ‘Decision-making at Glenferrie is a hit-and-miss affair.’
    ‘Disappointingly, there's too much hit-and-miss chatter and only snippets of the highly clever hip-hop they're still so good at.’


    Collins Online

    • As I said in response to Valerie Spanswick, they have separate entries for hit and miss and hit and miss in American English and hit-and-miss in American English.

    • For British English the example quotes are overwhelmingly negative (and journalistic).

    His mind was too wine-muddled to think anything through, other than trading hit and miss blows with his equally inebriated adversary.
    Jennifer Fallon TREASON KEEP (2001)
    The bad news is that the new show is a very hit-and-miss affair.
    Times, Sunday Times (2007)
    It can take a long time to do this and can be a hit-and-miss affair.
    Times, Sunday Times (2015)
    But finding great makers has always been a hit-and-miss affair.
    Times, Sunday Times (2015)
    The temporary ones can be a bit hit-and-miss!
    The Sun (2010)
    She is always to be feared on soft but she has been a bit hit-and-miss this season.
    The Sun (2010)
    He was a bit hit-and-miss in his early hurdles but has come of age this winter.
    The Sun (2015)
    Making the transition from ground to air was a hit-and-miss affair and required the patronage of an interested senior officer.
    Patrick Bishop FIGHTER BOYS: Saving Britain 1940 (2003)
    I have had many treatments myself and found it a hit-and-miss affair.
    Times, Sunday Times (2007)
    The satire was a hit-and-miss affair, with more misses than hits.
    Times, Sunday Times (2008)
    Because the one thing this hit-and-miss series absolutely didn't need was any more hatred
    The Sun (2013)
    Dangerous but a bit hit-and-miss.
    The Sun (2014)
    It was an untested recipe and the first time you try something it's always a bit hit-and-miss.
    The Sun (2011)
    I have been lucky - but it was a bit hit-and-miss.
    Times, Sunday Times (2007)

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    1. Thanks for all the quotes, David. I may well have access to those dictionaries at home, but I don't know it.

      It seems to me that almost all of those quotes fit the second part of the first Collins definition that you give: 'sometimes successful, sometimes unsuccessful', which is is also the Collins Online Dictionary's AmE sense 1 of hyphenated hit-and-miss, and what Lauren Gawne said was the 'sometimes' meaning of 'hit and miss'. This meaning, something I would probably express as 'patchy', is one that I ignored in my comment, being I think drawn to the more metaphorical uses. It seems to me that this meaning is at most mildly metaphorical, no more so than when 'hit' is used alone meaning 'success', making it I think a journalistic cliché - and one that the quotes show is clearly not a distinct AmE sense, despite Collins, though it may be AmE in general use and BrE journalese.

      A couple of quotes about punching and (I guess) tennis could have been meant literally, and I think the last three quotes are different. The Sun's recipe quote uses the other part of the Collins definition: unpredictable. The other two need more context really, but they might mean 'haphazard' in the 'random' sense - a bit of a lottery, a bit of a gamble.

      It would have been nice to have seen some quotes using the 'haphazard' sense with regard to plans or future intentions involving uncertainty. Maybe that sense is only in my imagination, although it's more likely that it doesn't get written down. "What do you think of my idea?" "Well, it's a bit hit and miss." "Really? OK, I'll polish it a little."

      I looked on Google Scholar to find quotes outside journalism. The first ten hits for "hit and miss approach" all meant 'random, haphazard'; I stopped at ten. Hits for "hit and miss method" seemed to be about trial and error; I stopped after a few. I reflected that my approach to finding supportive quotes was a bit hit and miss, although I did get some hits, so I stopped.

      Ah well. Once again Lynne's seminal article has been unhitched from its original theme and ridden hobbyhorse-like to places she never imagined! Apologies, Lynne, but there really isn't much to say about "'and' or 'or'".

      Delete
  11. Yet another instance on this blog of 1) my learning a difference between British and American usage I'd never have guessed existed and 2) the British English participants bending over backwards to rationalize their preference.

    There may be some nuanced difference between the way British English speakers use hit and miss and American English speakers use hit or miss, but I doubt it.

    Once again it appears that Lynne has found an expression the English used to use and then adjusted to suit a preference we're unlikely ever to discover or explain. It mystifies me that the British contingent here seems to find these adjustments so embarrassing -- as if their dignity depends on their proving they had a good reason to make the change.

    It's just English, guys. Stuff happens.

    BTW: as a longtime baseball fan, I've never stopped to consider the possibility that hit or miss is somehow related to hitting and pitching. And since Lynne mentions that the OED dates the expression to the early 1600s (a time when it isn't clear that anything resembling baseball actually existed), the nexus seems unlikely. In any case the expression pretty much never comes up among the broadcasters who do the play-by-play during the game. You'll definitely hear Swing and a miss!, but not I'd say this rookie batter's chances are hit or miss.

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    1. It mystifies me that the British contingent here seems to find these adjustments so embarrassing -- as if their dignity depends on their proving they had a good reason to make the change.

      Dick, you seem to misread attempts to make sense of what we say now as special pleading that it's the only way to say it.

      The most plausible explanation for the British change is Zouk's phonetic suggestion — mirrored by biochemist's spelling hit'n'miss.

      I for one don't care which version can be represented as more logical . All that's relevant to me is that before yesterday the only form I knew existed was hit and miss.

      There may be some nuanced difference between the way British English speakers use hit and miss and American English speakers use hit or miss, but I doubt it.

      The only suggested difference is Collins Dictionaries' claim that American English sometimes makes a distinction. I know that Collins always work with a vast amount of data. Still, at some point the analysis is processed by humans.

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    2. Oh dear, Dick, your prejudice is showing. If I didn't know better I would think you were an Australian whingeing about whingeing poms.

      "British English speakers use hit and miss and American English speakers use hit or miss." These matters are seldom black and white. A cursory glance at Lynne's GloWbE table shows that in the AmE corpus the 'or' version outweighs the various 'and' versions by only 173 to 144, while in the BrE corpus the same versions appear 137 to 438. So while BrE has a distinct preference for 'and', AmE is pretty much evenly divided between 'and' and 'or'. The Ngram in Lauren Gawne's blog, based on different and older data, shows a 2000 position that is even closer.

      "Once again it appears that Lynne has found an expression the English used to use and then adjusted to suit a preference we're unlikely ever to discover or explain." Ignoring the fact that Americans appear to use the "adjusted" expression almost as often as the traditional one, do you really think that language development is a "process of adjustment to suit a preference"? That is seriously weird from a reader of this blog.

      The "British contingent here seems to find these adjustments so embarrassing". Oh, come off it! Do you seriously believe that the BrE speakers here are embarrassed by their own language? Ludicrous! We love it! To be embarrassed by 'our' version we would have to believe that 'your' version was superior to our poor version, which is laughable!

      As for "It's just English, guys. Stuff happens," I resent your condescension throughout your post, and particularly here.

      Speaking only for myself, but confident that others here will agree, I comment because I am interested in exploring beyond the mere fact that there is a difference between BrE and AmE: maybe exploring whether the difference is clear-cut or whether there are subtleties that are not initially apparent, such as differences in meaning or use; maybe stating my own experience of the difference, just to join in; maybe providing more data by citing sources such as Ngram, GloWbe, the web, dictionaries; maybe trying to tease out how the difference may have come about. Calling this "rationalization", implying that we feel 'our' own language use needs to be explained away, seems to be a wil[l]ful misunderstanding of what is being said to such an extent that, as I started by saying, your prejudice is showing.

      Whatever strange-tinted glasses you wear when reading Brits' comments, I suggest you discard them. I suspect that the natural British use of understatement and indirect language looks like embarrassment to the eyes of a relatively plain-speaking American. Well, to these British eyes your plain speaking looks like brash rudeness, but I feel I understand the cultural differences between our nations well enough to take it as simply patronising.

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  12. "Sense 1 is justified in that you can hit and miss two balls. You can hit one and miss the other."

    That doesn't sound right to my ear. "And" implies both events happened simultaneously, not that one happened and then the other.

    So, for example, I can say "The shop is open or closed depending on the owner's mood" but not "The shop is open and closed depending on the owner's mood." YMMV.

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    1. Scott

      "And" implies both events happened simultaneously, not that one happened and then the other.

      That would be Sense 2.

      The editors of the Collins Dictionary believe that they have identified a significant number of uses where and means anything but 'happening simultaneously'. OK, I exaggerated by narrowing it down to two attempts. What Sense 1 typically implies is a longer series of attempts, some of which were hits and some misses.

      Not being an American speaker, I can't judge how valid an analysis this is. But, as I've already said to Dick Hartzell, Collins have a reputation for amassing loads of data and respecting what it shows. Yes, the analysers could have introduced bias by coding the source data in particular ways. I leave that for American speakers to judge.

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    2. Just a thought: "The shop opens and closes depending on the owner's mood" works, and without the need to invoke quantum superposition!

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  13. MM does V slightly. I understood the quote as an inelegant way to say "Sense 1 is justified in that when two balls are thrown, you can hit one and miss the other", with 'consecutively' implicit, but even if those two balls were to be thrown simultaneously it would still be possible to hit one and miss the other.

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  14. BrEng speaker. I agree with David Crosbie. Although I've never thought about the point before, as far as I am aware I have never heard any usage other than 'hit and miss'. In ordinary speech, the 'and' is usually shortened to 'n.

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  15. I (BrE) tend to use 'hit and miss' to describe something that is partially successful. So, perhaps a draft document or piece of legislation that has some good points but doesn't include everything that had been hoped for of it - it's a bit hit and miss.

    See also Mitchell & Webb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmYC7r4dViI

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  16. You can hit a baseball and miss. It's called foul ball. Anyway, in my AmE idiolect, I'm sure I've heard both and don't have a preference.

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  17. A large number of the entities described as hit-and-miss in the examples David quotes seem to be "affairs".

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    1. Yes, and these examples were chosen by the lexicographers as typical.

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  18. Maybe it would be interesting to run analytics to see how often the collocation, "hit and miss affair" occurs? Simply googling (ixquicking, actually) "hit and miss affair" doesn't bring up that many hits. One that is interesting is this query, on a Spanish-English vocabulary forum, which includes discussion of hit or miss, too.

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  19. There is at least one instance in AmE where "hit and miss" is used. A hit and miss engine is a old type of gasoline engine, usually a one-cylinder stationary engine, used to drive things like farm equipment via a belt. When the speed dropped below a certain amount, the engine governor will kick in and the cylinder will fire to get the speed back up. Otherwise it coasts. Hence fire/no fire = hit and miss.

    That being said, to my AmE ears, hit or miss designates something random and doesn't necessarily have a negative connotation.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)