The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Succeed in doing the opposite

A while back I wrote about a corpus search throwing up slightly unexpected findings for the chunk 'crowded market'. Yesterday, I was researching some vocabulary around the theme of success and again, came across some more slightly unexpected uses.

The first thing I noticed was how many of the words I'd picked out to talk about success were commonly used in the negative to talk about lack of success.

He hasn't had any luck finding a job.
She tried ... without much success
Your application has not been successful.

I wonder if it's a way of being slightly less blunt about failure. Are we softening the blow a little by saying someone didn't succeed rather than admitting they failed?

What struck me even more though was the common use of the chunk succeed in -ing where the following verb describes a negative; often the exact opposite of the intended result:

He tries to turn the lamp off, but only succeeds in knocking it over.
He only succeeds in digging himself into a deeper hole.
... succeeded in alienating hispanic voters.*

It turns out that the usage, especially preceeded by only or just, is frequent enough to merit a subentry in the Macmillan dictionary:

Needless to say, it succeeded in sidetracking me from what I was meant to be doing and proved no use at all for what I was writing, but I'll store it away somewhere for future reference ...

* Examples from the enTenTen corpus via SketchEngine

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