Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Try and Listen to the Grammar Nazi

I know it is unusual to have two grammar Nazi posts in a row ("A Brief Visit From the Grammar Nazi"), but as the title should make clear, I have been troubled lately by yet another annoying colloquial error that has been appearing ever more often in print. As with "could care less" and "should of" or "would of", it seems people have begun to see the structure "try and" as acceptable in print.

Let us begin with the obvious objection, try is a transitive verb, and always takes an object*, whether a noun ("try my cookies") or an infinitive verb ("try to remain quiet"). One cannot simply "try" the way one can swim or eat, try must always be paired with a definition of what one is attempting, sampling or otherwise trying. On these grounds alone, it makes no sense to say "try and...".

However, the problem becomes even greater when one thinks about what the statements in question actually mean. For example, let us say "try and eat a whole pot roast". I suppose the speaker would argue there is some superficial logic to it, as he is saying "try to eat it, and then eat it." At least that argument is no worse than some of the nonsense I have seen justifying "could care less". However, there are two large problems with this approach.

First, and most obviously, this absurd explanation fails badly when we look at many examples. Yes, if we assume one is expecting success, I suppose this absurd explanation works, but what about if one expects failure? And that certainly is the case in many uses of this phrase. For example "try and take this from me". That statement suggests one expects failure, which would mean the statement is to be read "try to take it, fail, and then take it", which makes no sense.

Even more troubling than the negative examples, however, is the simple logic of the statement itself. "Try", as a word, implies actually making an attempt. Thus, when one tries, whether he succeeds or fails, he is actually taking the action in question. Thus, when one tries to eat, for example, he either does or does not eat. So "try and eat" would mean, literally, "try to eat, eat or fail to eat, and then eat" which, beyond being somewhat impossible, also seems rather redundant.

Then again, it seems there is no structure so stupid that some hip pseudo-linguist will not try to justify it**. And so, I am sure the simple fact that "try and" is just a corruption of "try to" will not stop someone from trying to excuse it, just as so many have recently tried to justify "could care less". So, to them I say, "go ahead, try and explain, I could care less".

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* Sometimes the object is implied, but it is still clearly present. Such as someone saying "I said I will return and I will try (to do so)", or "try as I might, I could not open it" which implies "to open" following "try". If we apply this to the "try and..." formation, however, it becomes even more nonsensical, as we shall see.

** The most absurd, and one of the earliest, examples were those linguists who found African structures in the black dialect sometimes dubbed "Ebonics". What makes this so absurd is how much of the black dialect is nothing more than the common dialect of the backwoods south, itself mostly a transplanted variation upon the Scottish-English border dialect. (As argued most recently by Thomas Sowell, though the observation has a fairly lengthy history.) If anyone doubts this, I challenge them to listen to many whites from West Virginia or Tennessee (my relatives among them) and distinguish them from many versions of "Ebonics". Except for some current neologisms, there is almost nothing to distinguish "hillbilly" English from "black" English. Every "peculiarly black" form, from "aks" for "ask" to the many misuses of the verb "to be" are to be found among the language common to whites and blacks in the more inland districts of the south.

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POSTSCRIPT

When I finished this essay, I decided to look for a few good examples of this error. Instead, I stumbled across this article, which provides a list of 11 common grammatical errors. They aren't exactly novel -- certainly not as intriguing as the title suggests -- I think I even mentioned one or two in past essays, but as it includes my favorite modern error (confusing anxious for expectant or eager), I decided to include it here.

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