Month: May 2011

  • Let's try and make this clear...

    The odd manner of speech "try and" is one of my pet peeves.  For a long time I would mark it as wrong every time I saw it, until I began to notice it used by grammatically-savvy writers and authors.  As I paid more attention to it I saw and heard it more often. Could it be a common and correct idiomatic expression? Have I have been unfair to my students and clients for years?  Shocked, I looked it up and found this defense by Gabe Doyle:

    I’ve got some leads for the complainant on where — and when — this try and thing came from, and the answer is, as usual, from extension of an existing acceptable construction somewhere around the 1700s. I’m assuming you’re all familiar with the phrases come and and go and, as in:

    (1) I’ll go and see what episode of Antiques Roadshow is on.
    (2) Would you come and tell me whether the appraiser I like is on?

    I don’t think anyone is going to say (1) or (2) are bad grammar. They’re definitely fine by me, and they’re attested well into the past at the OED (see and, B. 10). Anyway, the same basic construction, where the action of the first verb (come, go) occurs before the action of the second verb of the second one (see, tell), got applied with a few other first verbs, such as try. This yielded sentences like:

    (3) Vic’s going to try and fit twenty-seven grapes in his mouth tonight.

    This extension makes some sense: first Vic will try to fit the grapes in his mouth, and then he will fit the grapes in his mouth, just as in (1), I will go and then see. (It’s a little weird with try because it’s difficult to clearly say whether the final outcome should count as part of the act of trying. If I’m trying to hit a home run, and I do hit a home run, at what point did I stop trying and start doing it? It’s a sticky metaphysical situation.)

    Independent of its sensibility, though, the try and extension has some history behind it. The first attestation in the OED is in 1878, in an economics primer. Google Books has examples dating back to — saints be praised! — 16031657, and1662. It’s not a new phenomenon and it used to be used in formal writings. In fact, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage hypothesizes that try andpredates try to. Nowadays, though, try and is somewhat more colloquial; to me, at least, it looks out of place in formal writing. That’s not to say it does not appear in writing; in fact, the construction is commonplace in modern books, but seems more common in ones with a slightly informal tone.

    But there’s nothing wrong with saying try and; it’s old, it’s well-attested, and it’s got a reasonable lineage. So please don’t base your vote on whether or not a candidate says it. Unless, of course, you’re voting in favor of a candidate who usestry and, who’s willing to stand by history and ignores the ill-informed objections of armies of pedants. That would show character.

    Summary: try and is a venerable old construction with 400 years of usage backing it. For whatever reason, it’s no longer considered sufficiently formal for formal/business writing, but it’s still fine in most writing styles and certainly in speech. As Fowler said: “It is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.”


    A bit of context for those who are not grammarians: the field is divided between two polar opposites, Prescriptivists and Descriptivists.

    Prescriptivists believe that grammar, like math or engineering, can be defined by rules and algorithms. Meaning is objective. A strong Prescriptivist will say that grammar not only can be "right", it must be made right.  To know whether a particular turn of phrase is acceptable, one turns to logic, standard rules of grammar, and often to a particular grammarian authority.

    Descriptivists believe that grammar, like culture or fashion, must be observed as it evolves.  Meaning is subjective.  A Descriptivist will say grammar is not a field of "rightness" or "wrongness" but semiosis.  To know whether a particular turn of phrase is acceptable, one does not turn to rules but to research: if it is "common usage" or "current", then by definition it is acceptable, regardless of how it may offend traditional sensibilities-- which, after all, are determined by enculturation.

    Most writers, editors, and teachers do not live at the poles, but in the more comfortable latitudes in between, since each side has its strong points and weaknesses.

    I tend toward prescriptivism, perhaps because of my editorial experience, classical bent, and of course my fondness for the Trivium. Except when I tend toward descriptivism, because of my several decades of intercultural work, life, ministry and graduate study, and my fondness for semiotics.

    In this case, my initial peevishness at "try and" is ameliorated but still stands. Here's why:

    1. Doyle makes a good point with the compound verbs "go and see" and "come and tell". But the reason compound verbs work well is that each portion of the compound can stand on its own. I go, see, come, and tell.  But "I try" seems like a sentence stem: more than the previous four verbs, it begs the question "try what?"

    Doyle's own analysis makes this clear.  He says "It’s a little weird with try because it’s difficult to clearly say whether the final outcome should count as part of the act of trying. If I’m trying to hit a home run, and I do hit a home run, at what point did I stop trying and start doing it? It’s a sticky metaphysical situation."  That's because the trying and the outcome ARE more intimately connected than in the case of "go, see, come, tell".  "Try" wants to be a helping verb... which is why it makes sense to treat it as a helping verb, not a compound verb.

    2. Doyle appeals to etymology or lineage too, and this is his strongest argument. I'll concede this. Point well made (especially that Merriam-Webster link). Back to this later, though...

    3. Doyle also appeals to corpora, to how often the construction "try and" appears, and has appeared, in the English language. This is what he means by "attestation"-- the history of its use attests to its validity. But as Doyle describes eloquently in a different post, corpora can be a shifty place to stand when arguing for or against the validity of a grammatical construction.  I wonder how many of those occurrences use "try and" in a way that is clearly a compound verb, not a misconstructed helping verb.

    That leads to my own conclusion. I now see how "try and" could be a legitimate compound-verb construction. But most of the time it is meant as a helping verb, and ought to be written that way, using the infinitive form of the main verb ("try to X").  So I will not be so quick to mark it wrong in the future, and will more carefully consider whether it might be a genuine compound verb, looking at the context around it and not merely the sentence it serves. And I agree with Doyle about its colloquial, informal feel-- it is out of place in formal writing, precisely because of its mushy vagueness.

    For the sake of promoting sound logic, and helping my clients and students clearly express logic via language, I will still correct it when the "and" obviously needs to be a "to."

    But I will try to relinquish this pet peeve at last.

    Maybe leave it at the local peeve shelter?