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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?

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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.

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"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.

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  • 1
    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

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