What’s up with “try to” and “try and”?

The other day my wife asked me about the constructions try to and try and. She said it came up at work and no one seemed to know why either one was used and which one was right. I had a vague recollection about learning this in the past, but it had slipped my mind.

So it was very nice to stumble across this article while I was researching something else. It’s called “Why does Canadian English use try to but British English use try and? Let’s try and/to figure it out” and it’s by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte. The article appeared in American Speech 91(3).

And then I came across this post, “We’re going to explain the deal with ‘try and’ and ‘try to’.” I swear sometimes that Merriam-Webster is checking my browser history. How do they know the exact thing that I’m interested in? It’s almost like people who are interested in language are interested in the same things.

What it boils down to is that the oft-criticized try and is most common in phrases where the word try means “attempt” and it’s been around for at least as long as the supposedly more standard try to. Brook and Tagliamonte show that what happened was try and became grammaticalized, which is fancy linguist speak for saying a word or phrase goes from just giving content or lexical information in a sentence (as nouns do) to serving a grammatical function in a sentence (as the past tense –ed does for verbs, for example). This means that the and in try and no longer works as a coordinator, but now functions as the marker of an infinitive verb (the verb that comes right after it). Pretty cool.

This all happened when the verb try was undergoing a shift in meaning. It originally meant “test” or “prove” (and it still means these things), but it started to also mean “attempt,” which is the definition that probably springs to mind first for many of us.

Brook and Tagliamonte show many interesting things about the two constructions – including how their use breaks down by age and education, and the increase of try and over time – but one thing that I thought was cool is this: try and has a strong preference to be followed by the verbs be and do, while try to can work with a wide range of verbs – even though these constructions essentially mean the exact same thing. Neat-o!

Biber et al. (1999, according to Brook and Tagliamonte) claim that try and is much more common in British English than American English, but I would really like to see more research on this, especially now that there are many more corpora available. I don’t have the time now to go search other corpora but I’m going to offer this to the students in my corpus linguistics course and I’ll update this post if any of them decide to research this. And I’ll update it if I look into it myself.

But go check out Brook and Tagliamonte’s article for lots more on try to and try andhttps://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-3701026.

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Book Review: The Great Typo-Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

Short review: tl;dr

Jeff Deck, an Ivy-league-educated middle-class white man, goes around the country to correct typos in everything from store signs to t-shirts to whatever else he comes across. He enlists friends (including his Ivy-league-educated co-author Benjamin D. Herson) who do not check him on his privilege, but rather enable him on his path to be as petty as possible. Deck and his friends learn little to nothing about language before, during or after their excursion. What could be a profound journey of discovery turns out to be nothing more than an aimless adventure of assholery. File this one under “Language books not worth reading”. Hunter S. Thompson would be pissed to know that these asshats stole the title of one of his books.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Great Typo-Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson”

Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!”

This post is inspired by a question my student asked me. The quote in the title comes from a song in the movie The Lion King (sing along here). We might expect a definite article to be used in front of king. But it’s not there. So what gives? Continue reading “Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!””

Word Fails Me #9: Neither do me

Ok, we don’t need to get into subject and object prepositions, but it’s bananas that Word is suggesting I write “Neither do me” over “Neither do I”. Come on, Word! Not even the laissez-fairest of linguists (such as me) would say that “Neither do me” is good (enough) English.

MSWord Neither do me

This is an entry in a series of posts I’m calling Word Fails Me, in which I highlight the strange ideas that Microsoft Word has about English grammar. Each post will be a screenshot with a short comment. The intention of this series is to amuse you and make you wonder where Word is getting its ideas. I’m not trying to be condescending to Word’s grammar checker or the people behind it. Word is a fascinating program and the grammar checker can be a lifesaver, even if it leans prescriptivist sometimes. If I come across interesting research into MS Word’s grammar checker, I’ll share it here. You can find all of the entries under the Word Fails Me tag. Enjoy!

Pronoun nonsense on Grammar Bytes

Hi! Greetings from Crazy Grammar Town! We’re still here… We’re still… here. This time we’re going to (again) look at a website called Grammar Bytes (the website is chompchomp.com). This “grammar” site wants to tell you about pronouns. They say that a “possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.” What the heck does that mean? We’ll take it piece by juicy piece. Grammar Bytes says:

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom’s car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom’s is adjectival too.

Yeah, ok, I guess. Tell me more.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin’s is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin’s with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn’t consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn’t consider Kevin’s either. And the fingers certainly aren’t doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Hold up! Who the hell would say “Agile fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna”? Answer: absolutely no one. I mean, did you really misunderstand Grammar Bytes’ example sentence? You knew Kevin was winking at Donna while he strummed the guitar. No problem. You would even understand it if someone said, “Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar. Then he winked at Donna.” BECAUSE THAT’S HOW PRONOUNS WORK! You know who is referred to by context. And there is no rule of grammar that says pronouns can’t refer to things across sentence boundaries. Think about how often you use pronouns and how often you misunderstand who the pronoun refers to. The ratio is 1 gajillion to zero.

But wait! Grammar Bytes goes on:

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

Dafuck? Who strums a guitar with their whole body?

There’s more:

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can’t have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

See, now here’s where things get more confusing. Because to me “this young man” might not refer to Kevin. Because guess what? “This young man” is not specific! It’s arguably less specific than the pronoun. So if you write this, you will be more clear to Grammar Bytes and less clear to everyone else.

Direct object or prepositional object?

This sentence is in the exercises for one of my grammar classes:

My wife always has a good cry over a wedding.

For the assignment, students need to analyze the syntactic elements of the sentence (subject, predicator, objects, etc.). The answer key has Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Locative complement(over a wedding). But recently a student analyzed the last clause (over a wedding) as a prepositional object. This got me interested. It turns out the answer key is wrong (maybe you already knew that), but the student might be right. Here’s why.  Continue reading “Direct object or prepositional object?”

What the heck is an action verb?

Here’s an interesting post on transitive verbs by the website Grammar Bytes. The author, Prof. Robin L Simmons, says that:

A transitive verb has two characteristics. First, it is an action verb, expressing a doable activity like kick, want, paint, write, eat, clean, etc. Second, it must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb.

That first characteristic is news to me, especially since five of those six verbs can also be intransitive (kick, paint, write, eat and clean). But let’s back up a second. A transitive verb is indeed a verb that requires an object. So want is a transitive verb because we can’t just say I want. We have to say I want (something).

But why does a transitive verb also have to be an “action verb”? Lose is a transitive verb in the sentence I lost my keys, but can we say that I’m doing something by losing my keys? Or that losing my keys is some “doable activity”? Another example is have in the sentence He has an inheritance. Not really something he’s done, no action undertaken by him, he just has that inheritance. Or how about I don’t have many clothes? The verb have doesn’t sound very action-packed in that sentence, but it’s still transitive. I’m starting to think that maybe “action verb” is not a very useful grammar term. Some more action-free transitive verbs (underlined):

Lord, it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar. Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars, it’s been the same way for years. We need a change.

This type of shit happens all the time. You got to get yours but, fool, I got to get mine.

I float like gravity, never had a cavity, got more rhymes than the Wayans’ got family.

If everybody had an ocean across the USA, then everybody’d be surfing like California.