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What Does "Ahead of the Curve" Mean?

Cindy Quarters
Cindy Quarters

Idioms are very common in the English language. Many people use them every day without giving them much thought. An idiom is a group of words that are used together but don’t really mean what they say. The phrase “ahead of the curve” is an example of an idiom, in that it means someone who is ahead of others or a schedule in terms of learning something new or completing a task, or who has more knowledge or ability than others.

The phrase “ahead of the curve” comes from the practice of plotting test results on a graph. A graph is used to represent the number of people taking the test on the horizontal axis and the score each received on the vertical axis. A point is plotted for each test score, and a line is drawn to represent the flow of the scores. The purpose of the graph is to give a quick look at how well the group did on the test overall.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

When test scores are plotted, the expected result is that there will be some on the left side of the chart. These are the low scores. Typically, there are not many low scores. The line representing these scores is an almost-straight line that begins to go up as it approaches the middle scores.

The center part of the graph is typically a bell shape. The line from the left rises sharply as it reaches the range of the average, or middle, scores. It peaks at about the center of the top, then curves down to drop off again sharply on the right side. The number of very high scores is usually a low number similar to the number of very low scores.

Where an individual shows up on this graph indicates how well that person did on the test. This, in turn, relates to his or her comprehension of the material. If a person is on the left side of the bell curve, it indicates poor comprehension and that the person is not doing as well as most of the others in the group. When results fall on the curve, it indicates that he or she is about average, doing about what is expected, no more, no less.

Someone whose results fall on the right side of the bell curve is showing a grasp of the material or concepts better than the average person in the group. It is this positioning of a person on the bell-shaped graph that ultimately gives rise to the idiom “ahead of the curve,” since those who have a better than average grasp will be on the right side, in front of everyone else, and thus ahead of the curve.

Discussion Comments


Excellent - thanks for taking the time to explain it.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books