English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

He failed to appear.

(1) ✲ What he failed was to appear.
(2) What he failed to do was appear.
(Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course)

Oxford has the case that fail takes noun phrase as its direct object(She failed her finals), but the book above says ‘He failed to appear.’ can’t be said as (1). Does the usage of fail without infinitive clause be limited only to certain meanings, like exams, tests?

share|improve this question
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Failed can take a noun object, be it a regular noun or an infinitive:

She failed her final.

He failed to appear.

I think it's the "What" thrown into your example that makes it incorrect. It's not unique to "fail"; the same applies to other words like "get":

What she got was her final. -- Makes sense

What she got was to appear. -- Does not make sense

You need a verb in the latter, and then you remove the redundant "to", like:

What she got to do was appear.

Or in your example:

What she failed to do was appear.

share|improve this answer

"He failed French" is understood to mean "He failed (to pass) French" so the direct noun usage can only be used about things you can pass.

share|improve this answer
What about "He failed his family"? This doesn't mean he failed to pass his family, it means he let them down by failing to perform in some way. Would "his family" be a direct noun here? – Mynamite Apr 5 '13 at 19:49

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.