"Fail in" or "fail at"

iMak7

Senior Member
Russian, English
Hi, I was listening to the ESL Podcast, and the host said 'fail at sth', but according all my dictionaries it's more correct to say 'fail in sth'. Could you explain which one is best and why he said this way, and when it is possible?
Thanks
 
  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hello Imak,

    I think we more usually say "fail in something", but there are people who say "fail at something" - it may make a difference what the something is, but I can't think what it might be. I can't say why the host chose the one form rather than the other, particularly when we aren't told what the something is.
     

    b1947420

    Senior Member
    British English
    Hi, I was listening to the ESL Podcast, and the host said 'fail at sth', but according all my dictionaries it's more correct to say 'fail in sth'. Could you explain which one is best and why he said this way, and when it is possible?
    Thanks
    I have searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found 330 examples of useage for "fail in" and 138 examples of "fail at".
    I wanted to consult the British National Corpus as well but the site is not functioning on searches for some reason.
    As Thomas has alluded to, it is often a matter of individual style whether one uses "in" or "at" both are prepositions and often are used interchangeably.
    In your case it seems that "fail in" is the most used but "fail at" is not wrong just less popular shall we say.
     

    Esca

    Senior Member
    ATX
    USA - English
    I personally would use them both, but for different situations.
    I would "fail in" a subject or area, such as "fail in mathematics," or "fail in business," just as I would say that someone is "good in mathematics" or "good in business."
    I would "fail at" an activity or a particular objective, such as "fail at rowing," "fail at getting the dinner on the table," etc, just as I would say that someone is "good at rowing," or "good at getting the dinner on the table."
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It would be a good idea to look at some of the examples of fail at/in.
    You would see that in many of the examples listed by the BNC the prepositions are not interchangeable.
    the normally eloquent Mr Gorbachov said "words fail at such moments, I am moved".
    the greed factor has ensured that when players fail at the highest level,
    only a small proportion of cases would fail at this stage.
    Did they fail in their exams or something
    The rest is just froth if we fail in that."


    There are, of course, examples where either could be used ...
    I typed that sentence because I expected to find lots of such examples, but I didn't.
    Perhaps I should have looked harder.

    BNC - British National Corpus
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm worried by some of your examples, Panj., because they don't seem to me so much instances of the use of fail in something or fail at something, but of fail used with adverbial expressions starting at or in. This can be illustrated by moving the adverbial expression: e.g.

    the normally eloquent Mr Gorbachov said "at such moments words fail, I am moved".
    the greed factor has ensured that at the highest level when players fail,
    at this stage only a small proportion of cases would fail .
    Did they fail in their exams or something:tick:
    The rest is just froth if we fail in that." :tick:
     
    Last edited:

    iMak7

    Senior Member
    Russian, English
    Well thanks again. The first time I saw panjandrum's examples, I didn't notice that "at" here relates to other words rather than "fail". Now I understand that "in" is more common and universal, but "at" is also possible in some cases. That was really helpful!
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Here are examples showing the same author (G.K.Chesterton) using each form in different circumstances.

    That mere law might fail at its highest test it had to be real law - A Short History of England, Chapter 2

    Here, as elsewhere, I think the professors dotted all over the Baltic plain fail in lucidity and in the power of distinguishing ideas. - The Barbarism of Berlin.
     
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