Ask LLOG: "Fail to VERB" should not be used?

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From J.D.:

A friend of mine – philosophy professor – just got this comment from a copy editor regarding a paper he submitted for publication:

Copy editor: "As per the style, 'fail to' (followed by a verb) should not be used."  

As in: "I fail to see why this sentence is ungrammatical" (my friend's humorous request for guidance on Facebook).  

So far, nobody has been able to come up with a reason why "fail to VERB" should be a problem. Perhaps Language Log fodder?

I'm baffled. Has anyone encountered this prescription before?

 



45 Comments

  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    I've never seen it, but I'll just mention that the prohibition doesn't mean someone thinks "fail to VERB" is ungrammatical. Maybe someone thinks it's bad style or often leads to bad style or something like that. I still can't imagine why, though.

  2. Jon W said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    This is maybe a (huge) overreaction to the fact that people can be easily confused by sentences including "fail to VERB" along with negatives, or implicitly-negative verbs such as "miss" or ignore". See http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000500.html

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    "As per the style" means someone (at the journal) has made an arbitrary style decision. It's a silly style decision, perhaps, and one that no one in this conversation would support, but something the copyeditor is bound to enforce regardless. I would just leave it at sometimes people say silly things about language, which is not news.

  4. philip said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    as Jon W noted, it is not impossible that some writers may fail to take account of the intricacies of this construction. And so the editors think it would be remiss of them to fail to ban it totally so that they do not fail to maximise the time available to them for other editorial jobs.

  5. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    My wife's grandfather used to say of the mediocre films he watched: "Do not fail to miss this movie!"

  6. Dick Margulis said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:47 am

    Afterthought: the journal may have instituted the rule in reaction to one too many overnegations or misnegations that occurred in constructions with "fail to" and made it into print.

  7. Thomas Rees said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    What kind of copy editor would write something like "as per the style"?

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    @Thomas Rees: Any freelance copyeditor whose remit was to ensure that the text conformed to house style, which is to say almost any copyeditor working for any journal anywhere. That's their job.

  9. Mike E. said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    My guess would be a potential lack of clarity as to whether "fails to" means
    (1) "doesn't"
    (2) "neglects to" or
    (3) "attempts unsuccessfully to".
    It may also be motivated by a desire to avoid distracting readers who believe that "fail" should not be used in all of these meanings.

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    I would be more interested in seeing exactly what the style guide says, whether "fail to" is specifically called out like this, or if an overzealous copy editor has latched on to a stylesheet statement to use positive structures instead of negative structures. I've seen this before, but it's usually encouragement to write, for example, "it is acceptable to" instead of "it's not unacceptable to."

    And to Thomas Reese, "as per the style" is a copy editor's calmer, clinical, more professional way of saying, "I recognize as well as you that this is a bunch of crapspackle, but it is in the official stylesheet, which we are both professionally bound to follow."

  11. Richard H said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    There might be less guessing if we could see the actual sentence which failed the style test, but for some reason the original poster has failed to quote it.

  12. S Frankel said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    But in "as per the style," isn't "as" redundant?

  13. Mike E. said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    PS:
    Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) has an entry which discusses the issue briefly.

    It could also be that the publisher either has a style guide (or the editor claims to have such a style guide) to avoid having to point out to the author that something is actually unclear or ambiguous — in the same way as a person on a computer hotline might say "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" or "Try unplugging it and plugging it in again" because that is more diplomatic than asking the user to check if the device is actually plugged in and switched on.

  14. EndlessWaves said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 11:55 am

    Other than an adverb, what else would you put in front of fail to in a non-technical context?

    If it's not used for anything else then it's a strange way to forbid it, maybe the style setter felt it was best with an adverb there or something equally silly.

  15. Milan No said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    The field of the friend might be relevant: In (philosophical) logic it is common to use "fail to" to express simple negation, with no implication of an unsatisfied expectation or any other kind of "failure": "Most crocuses fail to be pink." This is unusual and might be reasonably disfavoured in a journal that has many readers who are unfamiliar with the jargon.
    An over-zealous – or just sloppily phrased – style guide might end up prohibiting against any use of "fail to VERB", even non-jargon ones which do imply failure.

  16. BZ said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

    @EndlessWaves,
    Maybe it permits using "fail" as a noun as in "It seems like an epic fail to me"?

  17. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    @S Frankel:
    In corporate-ese, piling as many words on as possible makes the statement sound more"official".
    "Regarding in case as according to per the style guide"

  18. Picky said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    Nothing wrong with "as per" — it's been in use since the C16, according to Merriam-Webster.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    Endless Waves: Other than an adverb, what else would you put in front of fail to in a non-technical context?

    I assume "fail" in the prohibition refers to all inflections, so the exception could refer to sentences such as "Nine students went from failing to passing."

    (By the way, your "in front of" is my "after".)

  20. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

    @ Mike E.

    It may also be motivated by a desire to avoid distracting readers who believe that "fail" should not be used in all of these meanings.

    This is the ultimate capitulation to prescriptivism and peevery. "We know there's nothing wrong with a split infinitive but some people don't like it, so avoid it".

  21. chris said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    My guess would be a potential lack of clarity as to whether "fails to" means
    (1) "doesn't"
    (2) "neglects to" or
    (3) "attempts unsuccessfully to".

    IIRC, lawyers sometimes use it in contexts where it either can't be proved which of these cases applies, or doesn't matter as long as the ultimate outcome (the act was not successfully performed) is the same.

    That may or may not have anything to do with why the copy editor's style manual disapproved of the usage, though.

  22. AG said,

    November 7, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    If you substitute other "attempting"-type verbs for "fail", it does sound a bit odd:

    "I try to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."

    "I succeed to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."

    "I attempt to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."

    "I strive to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."

    "I triumph to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."

    "I struggle to see why this sentence is ungrammatical." (wait, this one works!)

  23. unekdoud said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 12:02 am

    What about the obvious opposite construction, "succeed in X-ing"? Does it necessarily imply an intent/attempt to do X? Or is it always semantically redundant?

  24. Simon P said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 12:56 am

    @Jerry Friedman:
    I assume "fail" in the prohibition refers to all inflections, so the exception could refer to sentences such as "Nine students went from failing to passing."

    But in that example it is followed by a verb! :)

  25. philip said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 5:09 am

    hi AG: I think that 'I try to see why …' and 'I attempt to see why …' also work.

    In this construction, for me 'fail' is not an 'attempting type verb'. It is cognate with 'unable to'.

  26. Peter Erwin said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 6:29 am

    @AG:

    I would say that "try", "attempt", and "strive" all work pretty well, and would be perfectly fine with other verbs in the infinitival, or even just with other tenses for the main verb. E.g.,

    "I strive to do my best."

    "I will attempt to see why this sentence is ungrammatical."
    "I tried to see why this sentence was ungrammatical."

    I would agree that "triumph" and "succeed" clearly don't work; this is slightly interesting given that they're actually more similar to "fail" than the other words are (fail, succeed, and triumph refer to attempts which have *ended*, either in success or failure; try, attempt, and strive refer to planned or ongoing attempts).

  27. Terry Hunt said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 8:00 am

    @ Bathrobe

    It may be a "capitulation to prescriptivism and peevery", but an important purpose of most publications is to attract and retain as many readers as possible and hence maximise their exposure and income, not to sacrifice either or both for the sake of someone else's crusade.

    It is a fact that a small but measurable percentage of the reading public feel so strongly about their various peeveries that they will indeed eschew a publication that triggers their ire. Unless a publication or organ aims (like Language Log) specifically to counter such peevery, normal commercial considerations make it reasonable to avoid losing readers and income unnecessarily. [Removes ex-editor's hat.]

  28. Terry Hunt said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    @ Thomas Rees & S Frankel

    "As per" is colloqially common in BrE. (My mother, for example, uses it frequently.) Personally, I would use "per" in formal writing, and "as per" in casual speech and friendly correspondence: perhaps the copy editor in this instance wishes to foster a friendly relationship with his writers by using a more informal style in their interactions, distinct from the formality of the published material on whose preparation they are collaborating. [This is a tactic that, as an editor, I myself employed, though the degree of its success may perhaps be gauged by my now being an ex-editor :-).]

  29. Sidney Wood said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    Editors need these rules so they can stay on top. In this case the editor managed to top a professor of philosophy.

  30. RP said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 8:44 am

    I despise both "as per" and "per" (except when it means "for each"). This is just a personal peeve, although I might not be unique: M-W says that the use of "per" outside of "business contexts" is "often criticized".

    Oxford Dictionaries Online does not include the relevant sense of "per" ( https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/per ), only of "as per". The American edition appears to include the relevant sense ( https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/per ), although the example given is an example of "as per" instead.

  31. Dick Margulis said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    @Sidney Wood: You seem to feel that editors should not be permitted, in a just world, to top, as you put it, a professor of philosophy. I wasn't aware that there was a master list, somewhere, of people's hierarchical power over one another based on their calling in life.

  32. philip said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    @Dick: what planet have you been living on up to now? Although not supposed to exist (particularly in republics as opposed to monarchies) there is of course a discernible hierarchical power of people over one another based on profession. linguists lick interpreters; doctors veto vets; detectives deride street cops; engineers undermine plumbers and judges beat lawyers … in fact, everybody beats lawyers.

  33. Dick Margulis said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 10:38 am

    @ philip: There are some lawyers I'd like to beat, were it legal to do so. But I digress. As for linguists licking interpreters, I suppose it depends on the individuals involved. And I'll stop now.

  34. philip said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    @Dick: nice to be appreciated …

  35. DWalker07 said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    @MarkL: Is this a prescription, or a proscription? Or both? :-)

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    Simon P:

    "@Jerry Friedman:
    I assume "fail" in the prohibition refers to all inflections, so the exception could refer to sentences such as "Nine students went from failing to passing."

    But in that example it is followed by a verb! :)"

    If you're serious, despite the smiley, I'll say that I think of "failing" and "passing" there as adjectives, short for "failing grades" and "passing grades". However, if you like, change "failing" to "Fs" and "passing" to "passing grades".

  37. rpsms said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    In what qualitative way is "fail to verb" different from "not be verbed"?

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    I wrote "However, if you like, change "failing" to "Fs" and "passing" to "passing grades".

    Never mind, that's not what I meant.

  39. Rodger C said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 7:40 am

    Has anyone mentioned Howard Zinn's collection, Failure to Quit? An apt reference for the day, perhaps.

  40. Guy said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    @AG

    "Try" "attempt" and "strive" are all fine. I think you're being misled by the fact that you have all put them in the present tense without the progressive aspect as would be natural with "fail". But "to" is the preposition marking complements of those verbs: "I tried to do it" etc.

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 9:57 am

    If anyone's still wondering what I meant, "His grades went from failing to passing."

  42. Rose Eneri said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    I initially read the inner quotation marks in the prohibition literally, 'fail to' (verb), which is different from the way quotation marks are used in this article's title, "fail to VERB". So, I was mystified as to what could possibly follow "fail to" other than a verb. Thanks to EndlessWaves for pointing out that it could be an adverb modifying that verb.

    But, are we not all splitting an infinitive? In the expression "fail to VERB" is the verb not a full infinitive and the "to", therefore, indispensable? So, should the prohibition be expressed as "fail (infinitive)"?

    This is a great comment thread!

  43. philip said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

    Rose Eneri:

    In case no one else has the energy to directly tell you, there is nothing incorrect about splitting an infinitive in English: sometimes to fail to correctly split an infinitive, or not to negate one correctly, can lead to ambiguity and bad style. The 'do not split an infinitive' advice belongs in the category of false rules.

  44. Marja Erwin said,

    November 9, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    "In what qualitative way is "fail to verb" different from "not be verbed"?"

    "Fails to convince high-count demographers" seems grammatical to me. "Not be convinced high-count demographers" does not. "Fails to convince [without an object]" drives me up the wall.

    For example, paraphrasing, "Low-count demographers object to the high count, because it implies that early Imperial Rome was much denser than the cores of contemporary cities. However, this argument fails to convince."

    "Fails of convincing" probably turns up somewhere, too.

  45. Austin Wittol Middensby VII said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 6:28 am

    Isn't verb a noun?

    Just asking…

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