Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trying and

Among the many constructions hated by pedants, "try and" is a favourite. For my part, although I invariably correct it, I do not think it is particularly bad, and I think a case could be made for considering it correct.

First, we need to consider what "incorrect" even means. As I've noted in previous posts, English does not have an Academie, so there is no authority to say "this is how one should write English". Only custom and various sources of authority that we appeal to serve as our yardsticks.

However, many, me included, accept that "correctness" in English -- or any other language, even those with their state bodies to preserve their purity -- is a matter of usage. If everyone bar you writes "in order to" or "between you and I", it doesn't matter that you deprecate it. You have been left behind by the language. This is primarily an outcome of the purpose of language: to communicate. To fulfil this purpose, it's essential that those who use the language have a common understanding of it. They do not have to have identical understanding, but it must be reasonably close. (So that we can disagree on what a "pavement" is, but we pretty much have to agree on "road". And you might use "may" where I use "might", but neither uses "should" for the meaning we are trying to convey.)

I think it's fairly clear that "try to" is more widely used than "try and", and most writers would consider the latter informal at best, but the latter usage is increasing, and there are other constuctions that share the same space. Many use "due to" or "as" where I would use "because of" and "because". Again, I would correct their usage, but I am not on sure ground. The usage of "as" for "because" is so broad that only my personal taste allows me to change it. So it's true, I think, that the day is not won for "try and".

But it is widely used, and universally understood. The first is important, because innovatory usages are rarely correct unless they are part of a jargon. You can't just invent your own constructions and hope that they will fly (even though they might be comprehensible to other users of the same language). The latter is not so important in considering "correctness" quite strictly, because solecisms made by native speakers are usually understandable without too much effort. However, I do think it's important in considering what is correct in a broader sense.

Why do people write it? It doesn't make "sense". When you "try to see" you are not trying and seeing, so why say "try and say"? People probably say it by folk analogy with "wait and see" and "go and see". It's interesting that these constructions have different meanings. The first, curiously, actually means "wait to see". Waiting and seeing are not separate. You must wait, then you will see. (And if you "try and go", you must try if you want to go. The parallel is reasonable.) The notion is that seeing would require waiting. The second means something slightly different. You must go if you personally want to see, but seeing itself does not require going. I'm not sure I'm correctly getting the point across (rushed for time) but the difference, as I see it, is that for "wait and see", the only way *anyone* could see would be to wait, whereas for "go and see", you have to go, but whoever has already gone, or is where the thing is, can already see. (This idea is complicated by its being possible that you must wait to see something someone else has already seen.)

It's interesting also to look at "look and see". Here, looking is necessary for seeing. So I think you can figure out how "try and see" has gained some currency.

The reasons that it doesn't work are complicated. "Try to" is not like "wait and" but more like "want to". You do not want and see if you "want to see" a film. "To see" is the thing you want. "Try to see" has the same pattern.

But items in English can happily cross into other categories, if they resemble their members sufficiently. Speakers use the material that they have in ways that make sense to them. We infer the rules of English afresh as children; we are not taught them (when you are taught English at school, you are taught two things: one, a restricted code that one could call "formal English" and two, descriptions of the rules you already figured out -- and those descriptions are often inaccurate). As in other languages, parts of verbs will become conjunctions and adverbs, adjectives will become nouns and vice versa, and nouns will become verbs if they're not carefully watched.

Nor does English have to make any sense. Phrasal verbs give terrible trouble to speakers of, say, Chinese, because they often do not have the sense of the words they are made of. ("Take over" is nightmarish for Chinese! Particularly because it can be used with the sense of "take" and "over" and also without it: "take that pie over to your aunt" and "take the firm over".) These are matters of idiom, that dirty black hole into which "sense" is thrown and new sense spat out. I think that if you can put up with "put up with" without demur, you can live with "try and put up with it"'s not making any "sense".

Of course, I do not recommend writing "try and". "Correctness" in language has a lot to do with status: you don't gain much kudos by using what others who believe that language signifies status consider a clear solecism. But I wouldn't be too quick to condemn it either. In a hundred years, it's possible -- particularly given its prevalence among American English speakers -- that we will all be "trying and", looking back at a quaint lost usage that only the very conservative still cling to.

(Just as a side note, it might seem that you cannot say "try and" because whereas "I'm trying to." is a whole sentence, "*I'm trying and." definitely is not. However, in "try and see", "and" is simply a conjunction. On its own, "trying" does not use it. It is, after all, "try" on its own that is replacing "try to".)


Anonymous Father Luke said...

Dig it.

And I hate math so much. I don't
know why.

- -
Father Luke

October 31, 2007 at 4:36 PM  

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