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The first definition of "fail" in the Cambridge dictionary is: "to not succeed in what you are trying to achieve or are expected to do".

Another definition of "fail" in the Cambridge dictionary is: "to not do something that you should do".

I am confused. When does "fail" imply an unsuccessful attempt and when does it imply a lack of attempt? For example in the following sentence

  1. The government failed to control soaring prices.

Does it imply the government tried to control prices but it was not successful?.

Or does it imply the duty of government was to control prices but it did not do it? Or maybe did not do anything about it at all despite the fact that it could?

Some other examples:

  1. The mechanic failed to repair the car.
  2. The mother failed to soothe his child.

Can you please give me some examples to show where each one of the two above definitions of the word "fail" is true?

2 Answers 2


It can be ambiguous. Your first example, would be ambiguous without further context. Often more context will resolve the ambiguity for example in from the internet (most use of this expression seems to be from India, probably for economic reasons, not linguistic ones). The context continues:

[T]he government has failed to control the soaring prices [... and,] has not taken any necessary step to control the surging prices.

Clearly this is "didn't do something it should" meaning of fail.

In other cases it is ambiguous, but that ambiguity doesn't matter. If you take the car to the mechanic but it isn't repaired it might not matter much whether the mechanic was lazy (and didn't try) or incompetent (tried but was not able), or simply that the car is unfixable. In general you'd expect a mechanic to have attempted to fix the car, but the attempt was insufficient.

The example with the mother is also ambiguous. But as with the mechanic, you'd expect most mothers to attempt to sooth a child If you wanted to remove the ambiguity you could also say "tried and failed"


Perhaps a way to approach the definition of fail would be to consider it first from a broader sense, as in the desired/desirable outcome is not obtained; second, the more specific meaning whether the failure resulted from absence of an action, or the failure occurred in spite of actions toward the desired outcome. It seems to me this second, more specific meaning, is often inferred from the context as @JamesK described above. This can mean that in some situations, when context is insufficient, it is difficult to infer the meaning with precision hence the ambiguity.

John didn't study at all for this exam so I'm not surprised he failed it.

In this example, the context provides the second layer of meaning (so to speak), the specificity. The failure occurred due to a lack of attempt.

John is so disappointed! He's studied so hard for this exam and he still failed it.

Again, here the context is informative and we learn that the failure occurred in spite of attempts to prevent it.

Have you heard? John has failed the exam.

In this example, there is insufficient context to permit inferences about the causes of the failure. Of course, in real life, if you know John and something about his ability and study habits, you can still make inferences about possible causes of the failure, but they wouldn't derive from the meaning imbedded in the word fail itself, but from prior knowledge about the world.

Caveat: non-native speaker here.

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