Why do we use F for failing on an otherwise arbitrary alphabetic grading scale? Isn't E just as meaningful for failing as A is for excellent?

I'm more interested in a response on the history of how the current scale came to be.

(Edit: prompted from the comments below, I am asking about this situation within the context of the American grading system.)

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    This linked document might be of interest Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 18:25
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    At our university, E is the failing grade.
    – Suresh
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 19:16
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    Indeed, this is by no means universal. At my undergraduate university in New Zealand, the grades were A-D with D being a fail (there were also + and - versions of every grade including D). At my PhD university in the UK, there were no letter grades.
    – Tara B
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 21:46
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    My university is in the US :)
    – Suresh
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 2:41
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    I don't know the history of the US system (in the UK 'E' is generally used), but if the non-usage has progressed from elementary/high school upwards, one might conjecture that it's to prevent students being able to easily convert an 'F' into an 'E' on a report card.
    – dbmag9
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 13:54

3 Answers 3


I think, and this is really only conjecture since I don't know the history, is the potential conflict with the ESNU system where E stands for excellent. The ESNU was (and potentially still is) used in US based elementary education.


My US high school had a grading scheme where A-D were all passing grades, and E and F were both failing grades (E is between 50 and 60, F is less than 50). I believe the difference was that an E class could be retaken, whereas an F could not.


Since it seems we have trouble finding a true history of the A-F my guess would be the following. Many scales rely oon an odd number scale because then something can be in the middle. It is also then possible to think of C as the center of a normal distribution, if that is how grades should be distributed. We used to have a grading system from 1-5 with no intermdiate steps in schools in Sweden where 3 was considered an ok grade and 1 and 2 were poor. There was also a fail whioch was a dash instead of a number.

By accident or by construction, F became Fail. It is possible that a five grade scale was chosen to make F Fail but my guess is that it was more a fotunate coincidence rather than deliberate choice.

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