Definition of fail in English:

Share this entry


Pronunciation: /fāl/


[no object]
1Be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal: he failed in his attempt to secure election [with infinitive]: they failed to be ranked in the top ten
More example sentences
  • The nine disciples had just failed miserably in an attempt to heal a child.
  • The systems failed spectacularly to meet the deadline for the new term, but we'll let that pass.
  • The most critical was that the regime had failed to establish firm control over the population.
1.1 [with object] Be unsuccessful in (an examination, test, or interview): she failed her finals
More example sentences
  • He was struck by how one woman utterly failed the test.
  • The day ended with me failing the exam despite me reaching there on time.
  • I fail these exams, and it is by no means an easy out.
be unsuccessful in, not pass;
not make the grade on
informal flunk, botch, blow, screw up, bungle
1.2 [with object] (Of a person or a commodity) be unable to meet the standards set by (a test of quality or eligibility): the player has failed a drug test
More example sentences
  • She did not fail for lack of sincere, honest, hard-working effort.
  • Face-scanning in airports - catching terrorists as they walk by - fails miserably in tests.
  • The rules require the title to revert to the original champion if a triumphant challenger fails of a doping test.
1.3 [with object] Judge (someone, especially in an examination) not to have passed.
Example sentences
  • Some Inspectors were stricter than others and failed children who might have passed in another district.
2Neglect to do something: [with infinitive]: the firm failed to give adequate risk warnings
More example sentences
  • In the recent Kendall inspection, the firm was cited for failing to have an adequate design change procedure, according to the warning letter.
  • The Government in turn are guilty of neglect for failing to do anything about it.
  • You and I have have been together for so long now you may feel that I sometimes neglect you, or fail to tell you how I really feel.
2.1 [with infinitive] Behave in a way contrary to hopes or expectations by not doing something: commuter chaos has again failed to materialize
More example sentences
  • Contrary to the expectations, the film failed to click at the box office.
  • Such zero-damage expectations themselves risk creating a feeling of defeatism when the expectations understandably fail to come true.
  • I defined failure earlier in terms of disappointed expectations and suggested that Saleem fails to fulfill the expectations he creates for himself.
2.2 (cannot fail to be/do something) Used to express a strong belief that something must be the case: you cannot fail to be deeply impressed
More example sentences
  • And if one has that belief, one cannot fail to be moved by what has happened already.
  • Having turned 20 earlier this month, and until now having limited his training to three days a week, he cannot fail to get stronger.
  • Anyone who knows how to buy clothes couldn't fail to love Jo's accessories.
2.3 (never fail to do something) Used to indicate that something invariably happens: such comments never failed to annoy him
More example sentences
  • I never took part but always watched and it never failed to impress me.
  • The Dakotas never failed to support soldiers and always accomplished their mission.
  • Thanks Lou and Jennifer for the lovely comments you never fail to leave on my posts.
2.4 [with object] Desert or let down (someone): at the last moment her nerve failed her
More example sentences
  • Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?
  • His first intimation that his nerves are failing him occurs while he is out jogging in the Catholic cemetery.
  • After a good fifteen minutes, she finally turned to go, her nerves failing her.
let down, disappoint;
desert, abandon, betray, be disloyal to
literary forsake
3Break down; cease to work well: a truck whose brakes had failed
More example sentences
  • The time at which you activate your parachute system plays an important part in the amount of time you have to stop if the parachute fails to deploy properly.
  • Should Service Pack 2 fail to install properly, the guide also explains how to restore your computer to a working state.
  • A system is put under load and either passes or fails.
break down, break, stop working, cut out, crash;
malfunction, go wrong, develop a fault
informal conk out, go on the blink, go on the fritz
3.1Become weaker or of poorer quality; die away: the light began to fail (as adjective failing) his failing health
More example sentences
  • Michael's health began to fail about two years ago and it deteriorated seriously from which he did not really recover.
  • In latter years, although his health was beginning to fail, he still enjoyed the company of friends and neighbours and had a big interest in the local football team.
  • In the last years his health began to fail but Johnnie held on bravely to the last and did not complain.
fade, dim, die away, wane, disappear, vanish
deteriorate, degenerate, decline, fade, wane, ebb
3.2(Especially of a rain or a crop or supply) be lacking or insufficient when needed or expected.
Example sentences
  • But once again this year the rains have failed, and the crops are scorched and wilted.
  • Agriculture in Africa is rain-fed, and when those rains fail so do the crops, exacerbating food insecurity.
  • Even as we speak, what worries us is the fact that our crop is failing because of the rains, because of the drought, and we are not the only ones who are hit with it.
die, wither;
be deficient, be insufficient, be inadequate
3.3(Of a business or a person) be obliged to cease trading because of lack of funds; become bankrupt.
Example sentences
  • Yet, businesses fail because of a lack of knowledge, money, and support.
  • I will not stand by and watch American businesses fail because of unfair trading practices abroad.
  • Akwaake said it has been noted that many new businesses fail because of the lack of mentoring.
be unsuccessful, not succeed, fall through, fall flat, collapse, founder, backfire, meet with disaster, come to nothing, come to naught
informal flop, bomb
collapse, crash, go under, go bankrupt, go into receivership, go into liquidation, cease trading
informal fold, flop, go bust, go broke, go belly-up


A grade that is not high enough to pass an examination or test.
Example sentences
  • It is feared that their children will be given an automatic fail mark because the number of days they study at school falls far short of the minimum set by the education authorities.
  • The pollen certificate might help them get a fail upgraded to a pass grade, or even a lower than expected pass grade increased.
  • He has one pass in biology (grade D) a fail in chemistry (grade N) and an unclassified in maths.



too big to fail

(Of a financial organization or other business) so important to the economy of a country that a government or central bank must take measures to prevent it from ceasing to trade or going bankrupt: he caused a stir earlier this month when he said that no company was too big to fail
More example sentences
  • Ultimately, if the US authorities eventually behave in a way that convinces the public that the market is too big to fail, the bubble could well last longer; the political spadework has been laid down for years.
  • For decades, governments across the West have permitted the creation of moral hazard in the banking system by encouraging the belief that banks are too big to fail.
  • And the greater the accumulation of foreign liabilities, the more the Monetary Regime became "too big to fail."

without fail

Absolutely predictably; with no exception: he writes every week without fail
More example sentences
  • Roast beef and chicken dinners are weekly occurrences and on every occasion without fail the meat is always perfect.
  • We got to choose a sweet for under 10 pence and she always, without fail, abandoned us at the checkout.
  • There are certain websites which always, without fail, get the wrong password out of me.
without exception, unfailingly, regularly, invariably, predictably, conscientiously, religiously, whatever happens


Middle English: from Old French faillir (verb), faille (noun), based on Latin fallere 'deceive'. An earlier sense of the noun was 'failure to do or perform a duty,' surviving in the phrase without fail.

  • false from Old English:

    Along with default (Middle English), fail (Middle English), and fault (Middle English), false comes from Latin fallere ‘to deceive’. A false dawn is a light which in Eastern countries is briefly seen about an hour before sunrise. The expression, the translation of an Arabic phrase, is often used to describe a promising situation which has, or is likely to, come to nothing.

Words that rhyme with fail

ail, ale, assail, avail, bail, bale, bewail, brail, Braille, chain mail, countervail, curtail, dale, downscale, drail, dwale, entail, exhale, faille, flail, frail, Gael, Gail, gale, Grail, grisaille, hail, hale, impale, jail, kale, mail, male, webmail, nonpareil, outsail, pail, pale, quail, rail, sail, sale, sangrail, scale, shale, snail, stale, swale, tail, tale, they'll, trail, upscale, vail, vale, veil, surveil, wail, wale, whale, Yale

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: fail

Share this entry

What do you find interesting about this word or phrase?

Comments that don't adhere to our Community Guidelines may be moderated or removed.