As from title, if I say:

XYZ failed to understand the idea that was conveyed by the article.

Would you associate a negative connotation to this?

What I mean is: does the above sentence give you the impression that the person did not understand the article because he/she is stupid?

I want to imply that it may not have been his/her problem, but that it was possibly because the article was not completely clear (which I state before, I am just wondering if the use of fail gives a negative vibe to the sentence).

6 Answers 6


Yes, in this case, the way you've worded the quote places the blame for the lack of understanding squarely on XYZ, especially since you indicate that you believe the idea WAS conveyed by the article.

If you're looking to be a bit more round-about while still not necessarily faulting the article, you could try something like:

The idea the article was trying to present was unclear to XYZ.

  • 3
    Also, for the young (or parents of same), "Fail!" is a common exclamation/reply/accusation, so that the word "fail" carries an almost automatic negative connotation.
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 17:39
  • Your option does make an implication in the other direction, in my opinion. The article tried to present it; which implies that the article (more correctly, its author) is at fault, not the reader. More often than not, when you say "tried", you implicitly mean "but ultimately failed to do so". There are very few cases where "he tried" is said when his attempt succeeded.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 13:14

I would say that yes, there is a negative feeling conveyed when you say that someone failed to understand something. With the meaning you're trying to convey, you may have more success by suggesting more directly that it was the fault of the article, e.g.:

The article failed to convey its intended idea to XYZ.

The idea in the article failed to be conveyed to XYZ.

  • Right, that seems like a good option indeed
    – nico
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 16:28
  • 3
    On the other hand, when people say "I fail to understand [something you just said or did]" they're normally implying the fault lies with you, rather than themselves. Context, as they say, is everything. Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 16:35
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: I suspect "I fail to understand what you said" started out as a polite way of saying that you were unclear, by implying that the speaker was to blame. But it's been used so much that this implication has now worn off. You can still say the same thing in much less polite ways. Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 19:43
  • @Peter Shor: Perhaps I'm turning into a linguistic old fogey. I think I still say it in what I consider to be appropriate contexts. And I'd be surprised if whoever I said it to didn't understand me, old fogey or not. Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 23:45
  • @Fumble - I use it in those contexts and in that sense too. I find that it's actually somewhat more effective than "you haven't made yourself clear": on the face of it self-deprecating, and somehow far more insulting because of it. Which is, of course, why I use it. Ain't I a stinker, though?
    – MT_Head
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 3:55

In the third person, it always has a negative connotation, indicating a limitation of the subject.

In the first person, it also has a negative connotation, but not about the subject, so much as the object, or the author of the object.


I cannot think of a positive sense of the verb fail. So, yes, I would assume a negative connotation from your example statement.

This version shares the responsibility for XYZ's inability to understand more equally between the reader and the writer, without actually attributing blame:

XYZ was unable to make sense of the article's central idea.

If you want to place the blame on the author of the article, this version may be helpful:

After a second reading of the article XYZ still could not comprehend the idea the author had attempted to convey.


I'd say it depends on the context. It definitively indicates total lack of understanding. But it doesn't have to indicate the reason. Very common usage are sentences with phrase I [completely] fail to understand …, which indicates that something makes little sense, rather than that a person saying it isn't very bright.

  • Yeah, I guess I would have less problems with that... but as I am speaking of another person (who I don't even know) I would like to avoid possible misunderstandings...
    – nico
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 16:28

Was it possible at all to understand the article? Even if you stated that article was unclear, saying that XYZ failed to get it, in spoken language, implies failure, implies that there was an alternative.

Purely logically it does not imply it, and to assume otherwise would be fallacy. But we are not looking at every statement as pure logical arguments.

To make things less biased you can try several approaches

1) connect the two sentences

The article was unclear and therefore XYZ could not understand the idea that it tries to convey.

2) turn it into passive

The article could not be understood by XYZ.

which is quite neutral in assigning the blame. Joining the two statements makes puts more blame on the article:

Since the article was not clear it could not be understood by XYZ.

3) don't present XYZ as special case

The article was not clear and many had problems understanding it.

if you must mention XYZ, mention them after the above statement is also less biased

The article was not clear and many had problems understanding it. For example XYZ.

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