Sunday, August 4, 2013

Try and ... get over it

In informal English, we often use idiomatic expressions with and instead of the infinitive marker to, when linking certain verbs with a following infinitive:
  • Come over here and look at these lovely flowers.
  • I'll just go and get something to write with.
  • Run and get me a tissue, will you darling?
  • Are you going to stay and have lunch with us?
  • Make sure and let us know how you get on.
  • He wants to try and find a new job.
It could be said that there is a certain logic about the first four verbs: first someone 'comes over here' and then they 'look at these lovely flowers'. Or first someone stays and then they have lunch. But we can't really say that for make sure and try.
I've already written about go and do something (link below) in answer to a post at Literal Minded, so I'd thought I'd try and have a look at try and.

I'd never realised that there was anything particularly controversial about try and until I came across a discussion on a language forum I follow, which included the following comments:
I am going to try to stop him is correct. Common usage of "try and" does not make it right.
I learned that you should always use, 'try to' rather than 'try and'. The latter has the effect of altering the infinitive.
"Try and" + verb is a colloquial use. It's acceptable in speech and informal writing. It may be part of common usage but it is not strictly correct.
"Try to" is always safe, regardless of how pedantic a grammarian is. In writing, try to use that form instead, unless the goal is to sound more informal.
At least that last one accepted the informal use of try and, but is it really true that we should avoid it in writing, I wondered.

Acceptability in writing - Part 1

So I had a quick look at a few newspaper and media websites and came up with:
"The government went so far as to try and convict a dead man for tax evasion" (New York Times editorial - Mr. Putin Tries to Crush Another Rival - July 18, 2013)
"in its biggest initiative to date to try and convince marketers to branch beyond TV advertising." - The Guardian - Mark Sweeney (staff writer) 20 June 2013
"Did the UK government use PR to try and win hearts and minds in the run up to the Iraq war? If so, how successful was this?" - from an academic essay (2011) by Tessa Humphrys (at Google Books)
"A Nene Clinical Commissioning Group (NCCG) spokeswoman said it planned to meet Labour councillors on Thursday to try and answer their concerns." - BBC News
"People who try and divide us will fail" - British leader of the opposition, Edward Miliband, quoted on BBC News
Mark Sweeney of the Guardian is being a bit naughty though, as his newspaper style guide states
try to - never "try and". As Bart Simpson put it: "I can't promise I'll try, but I'll try to try".
Meanwhile, the Economist Style Guide says rather enigmatically
To or and - To try and end the killing does not mean the same as to try to end the killing.
Enigmatic, because it doesn't actually tell us what that difference is. In a moment I'll have another look at how acceptable try and is in writing, but first I'd like to take a look at how it is used.

Most frequent uses of try and + verb

Apart from the fact that it's not difficult to find try and + verb in respectable printed sources, what interested me was that in nearly all these examples, try and follows to. It was almost as though the writers were trying to avoid a double to.
And as I wrote that last sentence I also realised that I couldn't have written - the writers were trying and avoiding a double to - it just wouldn't work.
So that got me wondering as to what were the most frequent uses of try and do, and also what were its limitations.
In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W.Fowler suggests that try and is used almost exclusively for exhortations and promises, and gives the examples
  • Do try and stop coughing
  • I will try and have it ready for you
A check at Netspeak, based I think on selected internet usage, showed that after a bare imperative, to and will are by far the most common words to precede try and, followed by and and going to and a few modals such as should. I got a similar result by doing a 'simple search' at the British National Corpus (BNC) which gave me a random fifty examples from 3900 found (compared with 8701 for try to - or 31% of the total.
NetspeakRandom 50 at BNC
try and6.1 million3
to try and2.9 million9
will try and792,0005
and try and215,0004
going to try and209,0003
Then I checked with Just the Word (based on the British National Corpus), to find out what verbs try and collocates with. Following this I checked these collocations in the BNC and compared the count for try and with the count for try to plus the same verb. These relative percentages compare with the 31% overall figure we saw before. It's noticeable that with the most popular collocation - try and get - this percentage is considerably higher.
Just the Word
try and
try and
try to
try and
try and get43752644154
try and find16715027735
try and do14615620144
try and make13315936430
try and see100478037
try and keep808320928

What about other forms: tries and, trying and, tried and?

Although we can say things like he ran and caught the ball, or they are staying and having lunch with us or she comes and sees us every week, the expression try and is hardly ever used with other forms of the verb, and for this reason is seen as a rather different type of construction.
  • tried and - in all the examples I could find in the British National Corpus for try and get / find / do etc, and had its normal meaning, for example - some of the schemes that have been tried and could be improved
  • trying and - in all the examples of trying and where trying was a verb rather than an adjective, it had its standard meaning, for example - keep trying and you will eventually succeed
  • tries and - there were three examples in the sort of construction we're looking at, and in the second of those, and could in fact have its normal meaning, but the other two are very unusual, although the third one actually sounds OK to me:
    • when its like that it tries and pulls you down
    • so Honey goes and tries and gets it (a job that's been mentioned)
    • if the government tries and gets rid of urban unemployment

An infinitive-like structure

Despite that last example, it seems then that unlike come and and go and, try and is almost always used in the base form of the verb, as an imperative or as an infinitive, either a to-infinitive, or a bare infinitive following a modal verb such as will and should, or a modal-like construction such as going to.
Mark Israel, at alt.usage.english points out that although we don't say tried and, we can use a past construction with (stressed) emphatic did, where we still have base form try:
  • OK, he didn't come first, but he did try and do the best he could.
Incidentally, those who say that try and is an error, because try must be followed by an infinitive, misunderstand what an infinitive is. An infinitive is not always preceded by to, which is why in TEFL we refer to to-infinitives and bare infinitives. The latter are used after modal verbs such as will, would, can, could etc and in various other constructions. What follows try and is still an infinitive, albeit a bare one. (See the Wikipedia entry on infinitive)

Negative restriction

You can put a negative before try and
  • Don't you try and get clever with me!
but according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage we can't say try and not do something, we need to use to (although I'm not totally convinced).
  • Try not to wake up the whole house when you come in tonight!
R.W.Burchfield, in the New Fowler's (Third Edition), explores these uses in some detail.

Is there any difference between try and do something and try to do something?

Fowler evidently thought so, writing that try and do
has a shade of meaning that justifies its existence; in exhortations it implies encouragement—the effort will succeed—; in promises it implies assurance—the effort shall succeed
That quote shows a subtle difference between will and shall, which perhaps doesn't exist so much nowadays. I understand shall here as meaning definitely will, as in the Fairy Godmother's promise to Cinderella - You shall go to the ball.
In a linguistics book called Grammaticalisation, the authors Paul J. Hopper, Elizabeth Closs Traugott put forward rather the opposite view:
Moreover, the meaning of try and is more modal-like than try to. It signals the agent's inability to achieve the complement verb and the speaker's lack of confidence in the agent's success. (Hopper 2002)
On the other hand, in the Third Edition of Fowler, R.W.Burchfield points out that, in a study of fifty modern novels, Scandinavian scholar Åge Lind found that although try and occurred in some syntactic circumstances more than other, he couldn't find any semantic differences.
And at alt.usage.english, Mark Israel suggests that in some contexts they are interchangeable, but that in others, try and implies success, and in other more ironic contexts, try and implies failure. can
So I think we can safely say that the jury is out on this one.

But isn't this is a recent thing?

Apparently not. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of try in the sense of make an attempt involves try and, and they speculate whether it could be even older than try to + verb.
What is more recent is the criticism of the idiom, and the divergence in use, starting in the nineteenth century.
Bryan Garner, the American writer on usage, has suggested that while try and is seen as a colloquialism in American English, in British English it is regarded as a standard idiom, a point British etymologist Michael Quinion at World Wide World agrees with.
This Ngram graph seems to support both these points. The lead of try to over try and in published books only becomes evident around the middle of the nineteenth century, and the difference between them is rather more marked in American-published books (red and blue) than in those published in Britain (green and orange).

Acceptability in writing - Part 2

Probably the most comprehensive set of examples concerning the use of try and is to be found in the Merrian-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). These stretch from Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville and George Eliot, through twentieth-century writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and E.B.White (a grammar traditionalist), to more modern novelists such as David Lodge.
The writers at MWDEU say that their examples show that try and has been socially acceptable for two centuries, but that is not used in an 'elevated' style. It is true that many of their examples come from letters or from dialogue, where a more informal style might be expected.
And although they quote Jane Austen using try and and in a letter, it only occurs once in her six novels (in comparison with about 45 instances of try to), and that it is in dialogue.
"I think, Emma, I shall try and persuade her to stay longer with us. She and the children might stay very well."
(Emma 1815)
But that doesn't mean it hasn't been used by respected writers in the narrative parts of their works:
but what it would be really wisest for him to do, was to try and soften his father's anger against Dunsey
(George Eliot - Silas Marner 1861)
Nor did Dobbin try and convince him that Amelia's happiness was not centred in turtle-soup.
(W.M.Thackary - Vanity Fair 1847-8)
She had had her eye upon him for some time past, and almost as much felt it her duty to get him off her list of young men for whom wives had to be provided, as poor Mrs Allaby did to try and get a husband for one of her daughters
(Samuel Butler - The Way of All Flesh 1903)

So is try and correct?

Most commentators seem to agree that try and is fine for normal use, but inappropriate for a very formal style. Professor Bryans, who gives advice on academic writing, says
Although “try and” is common in colloquial speech and will usually pass unremarked there, in writing try to remember to use “try to” instead of “try and.”
Some people seem to think that if something is inappropriate in a very formal style, it must be incorrect or a grammatical error or solecism, or some such thing. This seems to me to stand things on their head, to say that what is used in everyday language is wrong if it disagrees with formal use: most of us use formal writing very rarely.
Personally, I have no pretensions to write in an 'elevated style', and will continue to use try and as part of my normal language. For foreign learners, it's fine in most contexts, but you might want to stick to try to in academic or formal business writing, or when you're in any doubt, when try to will always be accepted.

Make sure and / be sure and

Make sure and be sure seem to work more like try and than come and etc, in that past tenses are not used - He made sure and locked the gate - doesn't work.
As a matter of interest, the British National Corpus has 15 examples of make sure to and two of make sure and:
  • Make sure and have dinner here
  • now that we have got this far we want to make sure and win
There are also six for be sure and, including these:
  • Be sure and come to the party tomorrow, won't you?
  • Don't do anything gratis; be sure and get paid for everything.
  • Bonanza boasted to me that with his organisation he'd be sure and locate Connie himself within that time.
  • Mrs Pigdon had left the room, with a parting injunction to the unwanted guest to be sure and hurry.

Related post



Stan said...

Some people seem to think that if something is inappropriate in a very formal style, it must be incorrect or a grammatical error or solecism, or some such thing.

I think this is an extremely common misconception. Correctness in language use is often considered in black and white terms, leaving no room for context. For what it's worth, I wrote about the try and controversy at Macmillan Dictionary Blog last year.

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for the comment, Stan.

I think in the TEFL world, teachers and course materials are pretty good at explaining these contextual differences. We talk quite a bit about what we call register (i.e. formality - I think register has a slightly different meaning elsewhere), and students occasionally do exercises converting from one register to another.

I've added your Macmillan post to the links list.

Stan said...

Thanks for adding the link, Will. I think register usually does refer to formality, at least in sociolinguistics, though it can refer more broadly to the type of language used. Also, in phonetics it has to do with voice quality, which is similar to what it means in music theory.