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Are the following sentence natural?

  1. You'd better study harder for fear that you might fail the exam.

  2. You'd better study harder lest you should fail the exam.

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines for fear... as "to avoid the danger of something happening." I am wondering whether this definition can explain whether the first sentence is natural.

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My AmE ear finds your two sentences unnatural, for different reasons.

If we use lest, it is without should.

... lest you fail the exam

... lest he fail the exam

Your sentence is grammatical, but would probably sound more natural to a BrE speaker.

for fear that is an explanation for someone's actions or behavior; it refers to the motive for an action that has already taken place, or which takes place regularly:

They piled up sandbags in front of the door for fear that the flood waters might enter the house. idiomatic

Whenever it rains they pile up sandbags in front of the doors for fear that the flood waters might enter the houses. idiomatic

It is not used with an action in the future of the person being spoken to:

You had better pile up sandbags at the door for fear that the flood waters might enter the house. not idiomatic

or being spoken about:

They had better pile up sandbags at the doors for fear that the flood waters might enter the houses.

It is unnatural to supply motives before the fact.

lest would work there:

You had better pile up sandbags at the door lest the flood waters enter the house. idiomatic

since lest refers to what could happen.

  • I am curious if my answer is wrong in any way. Worded differently but in essence the same result I believe? I do not hear "lest" much these days in neither BrE nor AmE except Game of Thrones or such – mplungjan Dec 7 '17 at 14:41
  • @mplungjan: I think with your phrase "when you talk about them" you mean much the same thing as I do with "refers to the motive for an action". Though you don't quite spell it out. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 '17 at 14:53
  • The difference is that Tᴚoɯɐuo suggested that "lest" can be used to make suggestions. – Apollyon Dec 7 '17 at 22:56
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Do you think the dictionary definition I quoted is adequate, by the way? – Apollyon Dec 7 '17 at 23:00
  • A single word would make it better: "wishing to avoid the danger of something happening" – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 8 '17 at 1:23
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If by natural you mean idiomatic? No.

For fear that and the synonym lest would be used when describing a situation

You cannot say to someone "do this for fear of something" or "do this lest something"

You can say "Study harder or suffer the consequences" - that may make them study harder lest you come after them.

Then when you talk about them, you can say "They studied harder for fear that I would punish them

They can say "I studied harder lest I got punished" but lest is not in daily use except in some standard phrases like Lest we forget

  • I do believe that lest is used fairly often in the US South, and not just in fixed phrases. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 '17 at 14:50
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    I DO declare, Mr. Beauregard! – mplungjan Dec 7 '17 at 15:06

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