Let me try and explain this

Earlier this week, I posed a question on Twitter.

I love Twitter, and being connected with a community of editing professionals bigger than I could ever hope to meet in real life is a real honour. But it can be frustrating at times, basically because we’re all such pedantic bastards. I’d hoped to discuss whether ‘try and’ was a regional expression, and whether it was used for a slightly different meaning than ‘try to’. But even though I’d acknowledged in the initial question that the ‘to’ form was the correct one, the conversation got stuck on that point.

‘Try and’ is wrong, I was told. Wrong, wrong, wrong: simple. You can see the conversation, and my growing exasperation, here.

Except that language isn’t simple. You can have formal, standard or style-guide compliant styles, and you can have colloquial, slang or pidgin variations, but language is rarely wrong. Unless you’re misunderstood by almost everyone, almost all of the time. Then, perhaps, you’re doing it wrong.

Also, to tell someone that the way they speak is ‘wrong’ can be a little, erm, insensitive. Though we mostly conform to similar rules when writing, our spoken language differs wildly and reflects our culture, background, family, geography and education. To use myself as an example, here are just three things that I observe in formal writing but not in speech: fewer and less; who and whom; try to and try and.

Perhaps if I were meeting the queen, I’d make an exception. But the rest of the time: no, because how I speak is a reflection of who I am, where I’m from and how, and by whom, I was brought up. I’m sure this is the same for most people – speech and identity are tightly tied, and if you criticise one you criticise the other.

My mother (from sarf London) has a painful memory of meeting my father’s parents (from deepest Kent) and having her pronunciation of ‘bowl’ (‘bawl’) corrected (‘bewl’). Someone once suggested I might improve my career prospects if I observed ‘whom’ in speech. This is scummy, classist bollocks, I’m afraid, and I send a big WRONG to anyone who indulges in it. Whether you’re an editor, a sub-editor, a teacher, a lecturer or a fricking rocket scientist, remember: unless invited, you never have the right to criticise someone’s style of speaking.

‘Try to’ and ‘try and’

Anyway, back to ‘try to’ and ‘try and’. I’m going to have another bash here, and please feel free to join in below if you’re interested.

Firstly, let’s be so, so, SO clear that no-one can misinterpret. If it’s grammatically correct and formal you’re after, ‘try to’ is the one for you. But ‘try and’ has a lot going for it. It’s easier to say (at least in my southern drawl), and has a friendlier sound. And if there’s no problem with “go and get ready” or “come and see me”, why the objection to ‘try and’?

Secondly, although the two are broadly used to mean the same thing, there is sometimes a subtle difference. For example, “I’ll try and read that later” suggests that I may not get around to reading it, but that if I do, I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to. “I’ll try to read that later” could mean that I’ll struggle with the actual reading. In the Facebook screenshot below, the points by Pablo and Terry, in particular, match my own interpretation. And while Terry’s a southerner, Pablo’s an exotic Leeds breed. So I guess it’s not just a Bognor-and-surrounds thing.

It’s not, as some people argue, ambiguous. “I’ll try and read that later” is just as clear as “I’ll try to read that later”. On Twitter, I was told that the ‘and’ suggested a second action must also be taking place, which made the expression misleading. But you’d have to wilfully misread it to get confused. Or would you? If you would genuinely be confused by “I’ll try and read that later”, please do leave a comment and explain why. In the Facebook screenshot, Michael gives the example “I hope to obtain a copy. I’ll try and read it later.” – but, for me at least, in the absence of a pause/comma after the ‘try’, I would hear/read it as the equivalent of ‘try to’.

Even if the expression itself can be ambiguous (and I am doubtful of that), that’s no reason to brand it as ‘wrong’. Pretty much all words and combinations thereof can be open to misinterpretation if used unthinkingly. A large part of being a good communicator, in speech or writing, is using your judgement to limit that risk.

Rant nearly over now, I promise. But here’s a kick-arse link, courtesy of Stan Carey, to the Merriam Webster dictionary. Its entry on ‘try and’ quotes Roy Copperud on attempts to separate it from ‘try to’: “This proves nothing but the lengths to which the wrongheaded will go to make nonexistent points.” Ahh.

Any thoughts?

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