The Grammarphobia Blog

Fast tracks and quick studies

Q: Is there a difference between the words “fast” and “quick”? When is it appropriate to use one and not the other?

A: As adjectives meaning speedy, “fast” and “quick” are often interchangeable, but not always.

There are some idiomatic usages in which one is better than the other, and in many cases your dictionary can provide examples. 

Here are a few illustrations of each, starting with “fast.”

A watch that gets ahead of itself is said to be “fast.” In sports, a pitcher boasts of his “fastball” and a racetrack that’s hard and dry is called a “fast track.”

In photography, brief exposures are “fast,” as in “fast film,” “fast shutter,” “fast lens,” and so on. Viewers can skip commercials in recorded material by using “fast forward.”

Somebody who’s got a facile and perhaps deceptive tongue is a “fast talker.” A highway lane used for passing is called the “fast lane,” while somebody likely to get a promotion is on the “fast track.”

Then of course there’s “fast food,” which needs no explanation!

As for “quick,” bread or cake with a short baking time is called “quick bread,” and a hot oven is called a “quick oven.”

Someone who learns rapidly is “quick” or “quick-witted” or a “quick study” or “quick on the uptake.”

And those of us in the language biz are always getting queries described as “a quick question,” a phrase we’ve written about on our blog.

In sports terminology, “fast” and “quick” can have somewhat different meanings. Although the words overlap a lot, “fast” suggests fleet of foot, or in covering ground; “quick” suggests having rapid reflexes or economical movements.

We emailed a friend of ours who’s a student of baseball, and he sent this general comment:

“While ‘fast’ and ‘quick’ can be used interchangeably in certain baseball usages, in general ‘fast’ is used to describe gross speed, usually leg speed but also pitch speed and probably some usages that don’t come quickly to mind. ‘Quick’ is more often used to refer to reflexes or shorter portions of movement, as in ‘a quick release’ (by a pitcher or fielder throwing a ball), or ‘a quick start’ (by a player running to catch a ball or steal a base).”

He went on to describe the use of both words as applied to fielders, base runners, and pitchers. Here’s a sampling:

“When discussing pitchers, for instance, ‘fast’ is most often used when discussing the speed of his pitches from mound to plate.

“There two ways you would hear ‘quick’ applied to a pitcher:

“ ‘He’s got a quick move to first’ (e.g., throwing to attempt to pick off a base runner). In that sentence, ‘quick’ means he doesn’t waste arm motion before releasing the ball.

“Or: ‘He works quickly’ (meaning he doesn’t dawdle between pitches). But it wouldn’t be out of the question to hear someone convey the same meaning by saying, ‘He works fast.’ ”

We have only one thing to add about “fast” and “quick.” Contrary to popular belief, both are properly used as adverbs, too. So it’s perfectly all right to say things like “He runs fast” and “Come quick!”

We wrote a posting a few years ago about adverbs (like “fast” and “quick”) that don’t have an “-ly” ending.

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