TRY TO VS. TRY AND

Imagine me starting this post with my usual admission that sometimes rules of grammar and usage, as applied by me, are as often “pet peeves” and even my own ingrained colloquialisms than they are hard and fast, unbreakable commandments. Here’s another one of those cases, but as usual I think I can back this up . . . ish.

This week’s burning question: Is it try to or try and?

I am hardly the first to grapple with this conundrum. For instance, Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty wrote:

I got really frustrated while researching this topic because none of my books seemed willing to take a stand. They all said “try and” is an accepted informal idiom that means “try to.” They say to avoid “try and” in formal writing, but not to get too worked up about it otherwise. But none of them addressed what bothers me about the phrase “try and,” which is that if you use and, as in your example sentence—I’m going to try and call Grammar Girl—you are separating trying and calling. You’re describing two things: trying and calling. When you use “try to”—as in I am going to try to call Grammar Girl—you are using the preposition to to link the trying to the calling.

With all love to Grammar Girl that only got me a bit more confused. So I went to my two most trusted sources, one of which I long ago suggested you all should have at hand. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (I need to get the newer edition! the following quote is from the 1998 edition) Bryan A. Garner advises:

try and is, in AmE, a casualism for try to—e.g.: “Mr. Kemp, who seemed intent on slowing his normally rapid speaking pace, accused the Administration of ‘demagoguery’ in using ‘fear’ to try and [read try to] panic older voters with charges that Republicans endanger the health of the Medicare program.” Francis X. Clines, “Candidates Stick to the Issues, Not Ducking the Touchy Ones,” NY Times, 10 Oct. 1996, at A15. In BrE, however, try and is a standard idiom.

Puzzled by his use of the word “casualism,” (The doctrine that all things and events happen by chance), let’s assume he means that in casual conversation, we might say try and, but in formal speech or writing, try to is preferred. Reading Garner’s example from the New York Times article left me wondering if perhaps people started using try and to avoid the staccato alliteration of to try to. That could be it, and might be all the explanation necessary for why there are two forms.

But the fact that there are two options doesn’t mean both are correct, right?

My other go-to usage guide, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (mine is also an older edition—added to to do list: update your reference books!) goes into much more depth than does Garner, but still comes up a bit short of making any sort of final pronouncement on the issue. The lengthy entry there did uncover an example that might explain why I see try and in so much fantasy:

Parallel examples of try and . . . are not difficult to find: We must try and find him at once—J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954.

But then Tolkien was British, not American. There is a difference. Fowler’s goes on, though, to say:

It is only when one turns to other parts of the verb (i.e. tries, tried, trying) that a gulf between the two expressions opens up.

And that, for me, is the test: verb inflection.

If and would sound weird if you inflect the verb try into tried, trying, etc. it would indicate that and is incorrect in the original form too, as Fowler is getting at. Look at this example:

Galen tried to keep up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

That would sound weird—would be incorrect—if you wrote:

Galen tried and keep up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

Then note that this version of the sentence:

Galen tried and kept up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

. . . makes a very different point, with and indicating an order of separate events: first Galen tried to keep up with the fast-zombie and as a result he then succeeded in keeping up with the fast-zombie, as indicated by the past tense kept. He did this (tried) then he did that (kept up). The distinction similarly applies to:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying to keep up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

It just can’t be:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying and keep up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

Though I hate the way the following sentence sounds:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying and keeping up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

. . . in this third example Bronwyn is amused by two things, in sequence (Galen’s effort to keep up with the fast-zombie, then his managing to do it) as opposed to the original intent, which is to show that Bronwyn thought Galen’s efforts to keep up with the fast-zombie was hilarious, and we still haven’t seen whether or not he managed to do it.

Likewise, you can’t use and in a negative construction:

“That’s the Gate to Hades,” Galen said, “try not to fall in.”

. . . would make no sense as:

“That’s the Gate to Hades,” Galen said, “try not and fall in.”

But then that example brings up the question of dialog. It could be, as we talked about a bit in terms of rendering accents in dialog, that this is a colloquialism (or, to Garner, a casualism) particular to Galen’s people. I would never say, for instance, “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not,” but Yoda did, in Return of the Jedi. As such, many if not most Americans in 2016 will likely say:

I’m going to try and not worry so much about my own colloquialisms.

. . . even if the copy editor in me wants them not just to replace and with to but to move stuff around to write:

I’m going to try not to worry so much about my own colloquialisms.

In fact, what we’re doing there is switching the word order simply to make and sound better, just as, maybe, we say try and to avoid that to try to alliteration.

People are weird and talk funny. If you want your characters to sound like people, and you should, let them talk funny sometimes, within some reasonable boundaries so your readers aren’t left wondering what the hell these people are talking about. But like all these other “rules” the quotes around that word is me saying:

Try to follow the rule until the time comes for you to try and bend it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to TRY TO VS. TRY AND

  1. James Ross says:

    Unfortunately, it seems that people are more likely to “try not and worry” than they are to ‘try and not worry.”

    Well, I guess, sometimes the latter happens. That moment when you realize you should care and meh.

  2. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…1/9/17 – Where Genres Collide

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