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Original scientific paper

Failing without trying

J. Lachlan Mackenzie ; VU University Amsterdam & ILTEC, Lisboa

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The article presents an analysis of the over 12,000 occurrences of fail and failure
followed by to in the 100m-word British National Corpus. In its lexical use, fail is
a negative-implicative verb of the type identified in the seventies by Karttunen
and Givón (Susan tried and failed to seduce her teacher). In its grammaticalized
use, however, it functions as an alternative to not (It failed to rain last night = It
didn’t rain last night; The fur failed to fly at the meeting = The fur didn’t fly at the
meeting). We analyse the latter use of fail firstly as a subject-raising verb and ultimately
as a grammatical operator of negation with periphrastic exponence of the
type proposed by Ackerman & Stump. Various presuppositions connected with
the lexical sense of fail persist in its grammaticalized use, but not where fail is followed
by to be. An application of Functional Discourse Grammar reveals that the
periphrastic negative has narrower scope than not, which leads to an examination
of the use of fail in litotes. The article concludes with discussion of the semantic
and pragmatic motivations for the grammaticalization.


Functional Discourse Grammar, grammaticalization, subject-raising verbs, negative-implicative verbs, grammatical operator of negation, periphrastic negative

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