Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Try TO vs. Try AND


Q. Could you comment on these two sentences:

• Please try and avoid excessive noise in the
• Please try to avoid excessive noise in the

I was taught that the second version is correct.
Nanette/Cheboygan, MI

A. Most grammarians will endorse your position, at least in formal writing or speechmaking. The tradition is that when the first verb is a command or a strong request
(the imperative mood), the verb that follows should be in the infinitive form (to + verb):

Try to avoid excessive noise.
Come to see us when you get a chance.
Be sure to get an application form on the way out.

However, in informal use, the word and often replaces the word to:

Try and avoid excessive noise.
Come and see us when you get a chance.
Be sure and get an application form on the way out.

Remember that grammar rules are arbitrary; they are not based on something inherent in the language, something that can never change. They are based on custom or style, realities that can and will change over long periods of time.

Think of grammar rules as temporary conventions that may work for a few generations, sometimes longer. The only reason they are useful is to ensure that we are all on the same page. When the page turns and new rules evolve, there is no problem, no violation of something sacred, as long as we still understand each other. Understanding is the point; grammatical conventions are merely a tool.

In practice, this means that the formal rule articulated above is not engraved in stone. Here’s an example from 1813 that breaks the rule. The writer is Jane Austen, one of the finest English stylists in the last two hundred years.

“Now I will try and write of something else.” [Letter, January 29, 1813]

Not even the Grammar Police will dare to arrest her for that.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of your analysis, especially about the flexibility and evolution of grammar over time, I think the case for "try and" vs "try to" is special. I believe "try to" should be the proper usage. To say "try and" seems redundant. One must first try before one can succeed. If the speaker says "try and succeed" he is essentially issuing two imperatives and the first one is redundant as the second necessarily includes the act of trying. This usage drives me crazy and in my mind it is not so different from saying "stupid idiot". My objection to this form is not based on style but on logic. It just doesn't make sense to say "try and". Nevertheless, it seems to be the more common way of saying it these days.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

You make a good point: if one separates the AND, which thereby makes it a freestanding coordinating conjunction, then two imperatives are at work. But remember that we're dealing with an idiom here, and generally, idioms contain inseparable units; the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts. But I assure you that I always use "try to. . . ." In conversation, this avoids the slurred "try 'n do. . ."

4:28 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I find your analyses of grammar to typically be well conceived. Unfortunately, I can't even begin to agree that grammar is totally arbitrary. While classical "prescriptivist" grammar is certain arbitrary, it turns out a lot of "rules" happen to be rules for a good reason (a lot of it having to do with cognitive psycholinguistics). For example, the idea of preposition stranding actually turns out to relate to a cognitive concept called "chunking;" that is, it turns out that, despite being introduced to the stranded prepositional forms at young ages, children INVARIABLY begin by NOT stranding. It's only after they've used the language enough and around other competent speakers that they actually begin to strand prepositions. So, we have at least one case where the arbitrariness of a grammar rule actually holds for a significant cognitive function, namely the chunking of prepositional phrases as such. The large movement in structuralist and transformational generative grammar seems to show that grammar rules are all but arbitrary and likely results of significant evolutionary enhancements.

But I certainly do agree with your assessment of "try to" versus "try and." =]

12:49 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

Thanks for your clarification, Tom. I tend to distinguish between grammar rules and language rules in my head, but I certainly did not make that distinction clear in this post.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm ... replacing "try" with an equivalent, such as "attempt", helps to clarify it for me. Not even Jane Austen would get away with "Now I will attempt and write of something else."

Also, thinking of how one might respond, in writing or verbally, to the request seems instructive. "I am trying and avoid excessive noise." versus "I am trying to avoid excessive noise.".

Perhaps this approach is not linguistically correct ... who knows, I'm just an engineer.

9:42 AM  

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