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While going through Swan's PEU, I encountered this sentence in its example:

My parents expected too much of me when I was at school. They were terribly upset when I failed my exams.

Now this triggers a question in my mind.

Which ones are acceptable?

I passed exams
I passed in exams
I failed exams
I failed in exams

Okay, if 'in' is incorrect, how do we say passing or failing in a particular subject?

I passed/failed in math (exams) OR
I passed/failed math (exams)

What if I remove the parenthesis? I failed math does not seem a valid sentence.

Note: InE seems to be fine with passing/failing in exams as I hear almost everyone practicing it.

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I failed math.

Is certainly a valid sentence in AmE. In general I would say using "in" with the examples you note sounds strange. My tendency would be to go with

I failed my math exams.

I passed all my exams.

Having said that it feels like usually you actually talk about failing a class (which "I failed math" is really an example of) more often then failing a given exam. But that is probbably due more to the fact that in the US where I taught the final grade is in general derived from many factors (multiple exams and homework) and as such "failing" a given exam doesn't make as much sense as in a system where you just have one oral exam at the end.

Edit: Thinking about it more when you say "I failed in exams", to me that sounds most like you had a course in creating examinations and you failed that.

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As we the people of the Indian Subcontinent tend to do a literal translation from Hindi/Urdu into English, we make the mistake of using the preposition "in" after the verbs pass and fail.

In fact, if you are talking about an examination, a test, or course, it's equally natural in both AE and BE not to use the "in" after pass and fail.

However, if you are talking of an academic subject, it's more common and natural in AE not to use the "in", though using the "in" here isn't incorrect.

As for BE, it's more common to use the "in" before an academic subject, though it's not incorrect if you don't use this preposition. So in AE & BE, you say:

He passed/failed the test/exam. (AE/BE)

He passed/failed math. (more common in AE)

He passed/failed in maths. (more common in BE)

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In AmE, the "in" is not used. Not in any of your examples.

For instance, "I failed Math." is the normal, typical way to say it. (Although "failed in math" would certainly be understood, and would not seem peculiar.)

But "Failed in the exam" would be seen/heard as incorrect.

Note: one could say

  • I got a failing grade in math.

  • I got a failing score on that exam.

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  • What about "I got failed in math'?
    – Maulik V
    Jul 7 '15 at 8:01
  • @MaulikV - If you didn't write the exams yourself perhaps. But otherwise I'd assume that you failed yourself, in an active sense. (irony alert or passive, considering the results...)
    – Stephie
    Jul 7 '15 at 8:12
  • @MaulikV "I got failed in math" is gramatically ok IMO, and I'm sure many students use it. Though probably more often "That bloody math TA failed me again, he's got it in for me and it has nothing to do with the fact I've never shown up to class."
    – DRF
    Jul 7 '15 at 11:52

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