It's not for (lack of (not)) trying

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Andrew Hood, "With second at Amstel Gold, Valverde confident for remaining Ardennes races", Velo News 4/19/2015 (emphasis added):

Perhaps Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will never win the Amstel Gold Race. It’s not for trying. And for the third time in his career, he was on the final podium Sunday, behind a superb Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step), who relegated Spain’s “Green Bullet” to second in the Dutch classic.

Francisco Almeida writes to suggest that there's an under-negation here, since the usual expression is "It's not for lack of trying".

But was this a conceptual confusion, or just an editing error? I'd vote for an editing error in this case, though it seems likely to me that the errors in the other direction,"not for lack of not trying" are genuine examples of misnegation.



  1. Jacob said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    Might Hood have conflated "not for lack of trying" with "not for nothing"?

  2. chips mackinolty said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    I thought the original phrase was "not for want of trying" which has a somewhat different connotation as "lack of trying".

    [(myl) Google Books ngram evidence suggests that the future belongs to the lackers rather than the wanters:

    And there are plenty of hits for "not for want of not trying".

  3. iching said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    @chips mackinolty:

    "I thought the original phrase was "not for want of trying" which has a somewhat different connotation as "lack of trying"

    I would be interested if you could expand a little on how you find the connotation different between "lack" and "want".

  4. Gene Callahan said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    I second iching: to me the two phrases mean the same thing.

  5. ALB said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 10:30 am

    I third iching and Gene.

  6. Daniel Barkalow said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

    The article would make sense if Valverde trained with Yoda. In every race so far, he has done or done not. In the Amstel Gold Race, in the past, it's been the latter.

  7. FM said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    I think @chips is suggesting that a lack is an absence and a want is an insufficient amount?

  8. chips said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

    @iching and @FM
    Bloody connotations (and the joy it brings to languages)!
    I think you are almost there @FM before it dives into personal understanding. Certain "lack of" is an absence. My feeling is that "want of trying" suggests a shortage of "desire" (to achieve) as much as an insufficient amount.

  9. Marta said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 2:08 pm


    Or maybe that the distributions of lack and want depend on whether the thing that is lacking or wanting is countable?

  10. David Morris said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

    Translations of Psalm 23 vary between 'want', 'lack' and 'need' (for lack/want of time I can't count them:

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    April 21, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

    The Google books ngram shown by myl after chips macinolty's comment shows that "want of trying" was the historically authentic expression, and has been overtaken by "lack of trying" only since about 1986. I suggest that "want" in "want of trying" means exactly the same as "lack", and that "lack" is substituted in recent writings because to many modern readers "want" can only mean "wish".

  12. Michael Watts said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 5:13 am

    To me, "for lack of trying" and "for want of trying" are exactly equivalent. But I'm aware of that sense of the word want; for example, I also understand "a certain something is lacking" and "a certain something is wanting" as being exactly equivalent. Or you might see "it just wants three more s to " or some such construction. Desire doesn't come into this anywhere, but I guess, as Eric P Smith suggests, most people today have never heard this kind of expression?

  13. Michael Watts said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 5:15 am

    My last example suffered faux-html deletion. I meant it to be "it just wants three more <X>s to <Y>".

  14. Brett said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 9:57 am

    I had records when I was a child (ca. 1980) that told Bible stories, and they adaptors made some unusual word choices. One part that I remember confusing me particular had the prophet Daniel saying: "You have been weighed in the balance. You have been judged and found wanting." In this context, "balance" was confusing, but I was able to figure out the right metaphor, even if I was unaware that "balance" literally meant "scale." However, "wanting" was completely opaque for many years.

  15. Bloix said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

    It seems to me that "want" meaning lack or need as opposed to desire is almost completely obsolete in American English other than in the stock phrase "for want of." Even the noun (meaning privation) is rare. Note that although the King James has "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," modern translations tend to substitute the ugly "I lack nothing" to avoid misunderstanding (not that I desire nothing, but that I have everything).

  16. Bloix said,

    April 22, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

    In fact, "want" and "need" in modern American English are to some extent mutually exclusive. And perhaps in British English, too: I don't want you, but I need you, don't want to kiss you, but I need to, etc.

    Brett – the KJV has "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting." Most translations follow the KJV, some with updated grammar, but retaining "balances" and "wanting." The New English Bible has, "you are weighed on the balances and found to be lacking."

  17. Rodger C said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:04 am

    @Brett: To follow up on Bloix, it sounds as if you were reading a rather perfunctory adaptation by someone whose Bible brain was steeped in 1611 English. Do any current translations, I wonder, read "weighed on the scales"?

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    Bloix: But the Prayer Book Psalms (from Coverdale's Bible, older than the KJV) also have 'therefore shall I lack nothing'.

  19. Bloix said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 9:24 am

    Andrew –
    Now you've made me curious .Google tells me that Coverdale is 1535, much before the KJV.
    Here's a BBC article on translations of the 23rd Psalm.
    It gives the Matthew-Tyndale version (1537) as "I can wante nothinge," and a 1549 rhymed translation as "nothing therefore I need." So all three possible words were in play very early on.

    The Hebrew, lo echsar, doesn't have a separate word for "nothing," so "I shall not want" is slightly more literal, aside from being miles more beautiful.

  20. Brett said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    @Bloix, Rodger C:

  21. Brett said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 11:25 am

    @Bloix, Rodger C: The particular oddity of that word choices on that record went beyond just using old-fashioned words in the style of the King James Bible. There were also some weird attempts to modernize things. A little later, when it described the officials at the court of Darius who were conspiring against Daniel, it described them as "the presidents and the princes."

  22. Bloix said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    But that's what the KJV says!

    Daniel 6:6 -7:
    Then these presidents and princes assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever. All the presidents of the kingdom, the governors, and the princes, the counsellors, and the captains, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a firm decree, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any God or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions.

  23. cyclingfan said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

    cycling commentators (like skiing commentators) are a rich source of hyperbole, cliches, and mixed metaphors.

    I remember Carlton Kirby gushing recently about so and cyclist being in the parthenon of great cyclists

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