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?

Culture clash

Yoghurt, yoghurt, yoghurt. For the past three weeks or so, my every spare minute has been oozing with yoghurt. Eww. Not literally, thank goodness. I’ve been writing a category report on yoghurt and pot desserts.

This involved talking to around 35 press officers, one for each of the different brands and one for each of the supermarkets. The press officers for the brands are superb, almost to a (wo)man. Pleasant to deal with, quick to respond and totally on the ball.

Oh, but the language. The language of press releases, of the internal workings of brand identity, of fmcg. It is a terror.

I work in my kitchen, so I read these things with an oven nearby. A gas oven, temptingly near to my head. Do you know how dangerous that is?

The point of a press release – or, indeed, any information given to the press – is to deliver information to journalists, who in turn deliver it to their readers. In this case, the feature was for The Grocer magazine, so the readers are suppliers, retailers, wholesalers, farmers and the occasional member of the public with an unusual taste in recreational reading. Above all, they’re people, not robots. Therefore, there is no reason to talk to them of “eating occasions” when you could say “meals and snacks”.

However, very few press releases are actually written with the reader in mind. Instead, it’s all about the company and what they want to shout about – in their strange private dialect. But if you write your press releases in simple, direct, meaningful words, you stand a much better chance of getting your message across.

So I’m going to be radical and take some real phrases that were sent to me and put them in nice, simple, human English. I know, I know. Try not to get too excited.

  • “Snacking is one of the key occasions for the Low Fat yogurt consumer”
    This just makes me think of David Attenborough (“Bamboo is one of the key food sources for the mountain gorilla”) – it’s an odd construction to use. How about “consumers most often eat low-fat yoghurt as a snack”? If that’s true, of course. Which we don’t know, because the word “key” doesn’t actually mean anything.
  • “Greek yoghurt sits on a continuum between yoghurts and desserts”
    This is crazy talk. Try “Greek yoghurt sits somewhere between yoghurts and desserts”, if you must. Or say what you mean: “Being thicker and more luxurious, Greek yoghurt can also be used for desserts.”
  • “Yoghurt retains a health halo”
    No it doesn’t. “People see yoghurt as a healthy food.”
  • “It is an eye attractive on shelf product”
    Okay, I know what you mean. But “it looks good on the shelf” or “it’s an attractive product”, would be better.
  • “It is about becoming more treaty through flavour choices and style”
    Look, I know the linguists say we’re not meant to scream “this is not a word”, but, sorry, this is not a word (except as a noun, where obviously it is a word). Perhaps “to make the yoghurts more attractive as treats, we’ve introduced more flavours and updated our packaging”?
  • Pleasure remains a key need-state in food”
    This means “people still like food that tastes nice”. You wouldn’t write that, because it’s stupid. So don’t write this, because it’s stupid.
  • “there will be a new TV campaign heroing on great taste”
    Was “focusing” not good enough?
  • “This is an iconic brand with strong taste credentials”
    I’ll refrain from going off on a rant about icons on this occasion. What this means is “it’s a well known brand and the product tastes good”. And then, I’d question whether either of those things are actually worth mentioning anyway.
  • “This is set to expand the ambient desserts category through the snacking occasion”
    This means “our new product is perfect for snacking, and this will increase sales of ambient desserts” (so stock up, all you supermarket buyers).
  • “this will catapult the plant-based eating trend firmly into the mainstream”
    This isn’t quite as silly as it sounds, but the fact that it sounds silly makes it silly. The company makes soya products, but they realise that soya itself doesn’t sound appetising. So they’re trying out “plant-based”, because everyone knows that plants are tasty and healthy, right? Right. And that’s why we already eat them, in the shape of fruit and vegetables. Firmly in the mainstream. No catapulting needed.

As I say, the press officers I dealt with were by and large incredibly professional and efficient. What I’m complaining about here is not them, but the kind of language that has become commonplace in fmcg. Commonplace, you say? Then what’s wrong? What’s wrong is that it’s only commonplace within the industry – the reader has a right to expect direct, no-nonsense language.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Take this from Danone. “You’ve been hit by some smooth caramel.” (Dananana nana na na nana na na) – that’s just great.

And there was my friend telling me what she and her husband got up to with a pot of yoghurt while on holiday in Greece. That too. In fact, I think the two of them may have damn well expanded the yoghurt usage occasion further, what with pleasure being their key need state and all. (They’ll be eating plants next.) I’d like to dedicate the photo above to them. Treaty!

It’s all about the hygeine

When you meet a reporter out and about and reveal that you’re a sub-editor, you might just catch a flash of fury in their eye, quickly subdued under frosty politeness. (After all, you write their headlines, and there was ‘that one time’ when one of your kin saved them from widespread mockery.) But that flash of fury? It’s justified. Because once upon a time, a sub messed up and made them look bad.

Like this:

Further down in the article, the writer did spell it wrong, once. Or, possibly, they spelt it wrong three times and the sub corrected it twice and missed the third one. Either way, the sub then went on and wrote ‘hygeine’ in nice big letters in the caption… twice.

I nearly did this, fairly recently. In subbing my colleague’s article about prepositions, I added a sub-head that read: “So is it ever okay to end a sentence with a proposition?” Answers on a postcard. Luckily, we (okay, she) caught it before we published it.

Whenever I do something like that, I make myself go away and read that odious email by Giles Coren again. Because, over-the-top and petty though much of it is, it reminds me to be afraid, be very afraid. And when your job is striving for perfection, fear is a valuable tool.

Edit: a couple of people have said they hadn’t seen the Giles Coren thing before, so here’s the response from the Sunday Times sub-editors, too.

It’s in the headline!

Ah, dummy copy. So dangerous.

Even more dangerous, though, is a mischievous art desk that doesn’t use generic placeholder text. I once came within a whisker of sending a story about Jamie Oliver to press with a picture caption that read “fat tongue Oliver hugging yet another piglet”. Ta Stu!

Headlines, standfirsts, eyebrows and picture captions: all are in the danger zone. The bigger the font, the blinder you get. It’s huge, so it must be right. Right? But if you’ve left the l out of public or the f out of shift, it’ll be in the headline. Guaranteed. Never trust page furniture.

I’ve half-inched these pics from other people’s websites, because I was looking for a collection to link to and couldn’t find one. To see them in their original homes, just click on them.


And here are some I’ve been sent since publishing this post.

Note to subs… (Spotted on Main Road. Photo courtesy of a coll... on Twitpic

thanks to @DNAtkinson
thanks to @liamkellyldn

A really bad one (the editor resigned over this):

thanks to @grouchotendency
thanks to @Andrew_Taylor
thanks to Melissa

And, going off topic as these things tend to, some different kinds of unfortunate headline.

Owly Images
thanks to higgins
Thanks to @KevGlobal

(The original headline said ‘Can Dec at last match Ant’ and the second said ‘Can Dec finally match Ant’. One page was updated, one wasn’t… AARGH.)

thanks to Alistair Dabbs

Any more for any more?

Edit: I’ve now been sent so many that this post is getting unwieldy, so I’ve moved it to a Pinterest board. Keep ’em coming.

Public-sourced photos? Cum off it

Incidentally, the name of my local Jamaican takeaway is…

This is a post of two parts, and, like some kind of popular Swedish novel, it won’t make much sense until they collide.

Firstly, have you noticed that Collins has made it free to search its online dictionary? Brilliant news. So, if, like me, you have a mind to, you can now compare word definitions from Oxford and Collins side by side. Perfect. Collins definitely has the edge in terms of nice, clean, ad-free design, as well as some lovely features such as usage graphs.

Anyway, I was raving about this yesterday, when someone pointed out a potential flaw on the Collins site. In an unbelievably trusting move, they’ve linked it up to Flickr. Yes, that’s right. Whatever word you search for, on the results page you’ll also get public-sourced images tagged with that word. WHAT?

As I’m incredibly mature and above such things, I immediately tried “breast”. Wow, boobies! Next, with chickens clearly in mind, I tried “cock”. Obviously. Try it, go on – down on the right-hand side of the results page. It shows just two images from a pool of photos with the relevant tags, so I don’t promise you rudeness every time. But there’s a strong chance of it.

Okay, enough of the Vangers. Over to the second part: the goth girl (she’s not really a goth, but bear with me).

Also yesterday, I had a read of Claire Maxwell’s blog, specifically her post on Sophie Dahl’s book. She’s very good, is Claire, by the way, and what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism – have a read for yourself, and then marvel that she writes like that at the tender age of just 18.

Anyway, Claire had written in her blog post: “It’s a cookery book-come-autobiography.” And this should be cum, rather than come.

cum: preposition used between two nouns to designate an object of a combined nature

Now I thought to drop her a quick message (and in fact I did, and she replied that she’d had a feeling it should be cum but couldn’t bring herself to write it – “my grandad reads it!”). But before I wrote the message, I got to thinking: if she doesn’t believe me, where should she look it up? I don’t want to incite a young lady to type cum into Google, for goodness’ sake.

And so, the Vangers and the goth girl collide. Of course, the new Collins page was the perfect place. I could send a link to the definition, thus sidestepping any potential need for Googling. But I can confirm that those of clean mind and only reasonable levels of curiosity should not scroll down.

On the bright side, I have learnt about some delightful features you can give characters on Second Life (and, luckily for everyone else, that photo is no longer being displayed).

Call it a hunch, but I don’t think this particular feature is a keeper. The overall service, however, gets a big thumbs up from me.

As to ‘as to’

I like to think I’m pretty well acquainted with language irritations (yes, I’m refusing to use the word ‘bugbear’). But yesterday, two people picked me up on one I’d never considered: as to.

I’d written a guide to using ellipses and asked for feedback from my colleagues. Both questioned the as to in the following sentence.

In the following three cases, first consider whether you really need an ellipsis. Often, when the omission is at the start or end of a sentence, you can simply quote the remaining part without causing any confusion as to the meaning. However, sometimes an ellipsis is necessary for clarity.

It had never occurred to me, so I thought I’d ask Twitter. It turns out that objection is pretty widespread: as to was variously described as ‘faux formalism’, ‘pompous’ and ‘horrid’ – the kind of language that would be ‘written by a man in a bow tie’ and would ‘make one sound like a copper’. Well. That’s me told.

So, while I make no promises as to swearing off as to altogether, I’ll certainly be thinking before I write it again.

Here’s the Twitter conversation, if you’re interested. I’d also be curious to hear what others make of @catordog2’s claim that my use of any could change the meaning of the sentence. I’ll own up to it being superfluous (though I have chosen to retain it as I think it makes for a gentler tone, which is what I am going for here), but don’t see how it can change the meaning.

And, in case you’re wondering, I changed my as to to over.

Edit: in a classic case of oh-dear-it’s-already-been-written-and-better, I’d like to recommend Stan Carey’s post on as to. It’s far more sensible and comprehensive. 🙂

Why ‘post’, not ‘after’?

Dear businessperson,

You upset me when you write post but mean after. You lead me up the garden path with your tricksy words. See, I think you’re about to start talking about letters, mail and the Post Office. But you’re not. You just think after is a bit too dull, straightforward and English, and you fancy jazzing things up with a bit of Latin. But it’s really bloody unhelpful, actually.

Take this sentence (names have been changed to protect vulnerable parties): “What prospects are there for us post the proposals to tackle banana fraud?”

My eye doesn’t usually read a sentence in slow sequence – unless I’m deliberately reading slowly, I see the key words more or less at the same time. Consequently, when I look at this I’m expecting something about posting proposals. But is that what you mean? No. So I have to go back and read it slowly, and I don’t thank you for that, because I’m very busy and extremely important.

Now, what I really wanted to write here was that even in Latin, yes, even if we transported ourselves back to ancient Rome, you wouldn’t be able to use post like that because it’s a prefix. Postproposal, perhaps, but not post the proposals. However, having checked with a couple of people who actually know their Latin from their elbow (thank you @Nickety and @helendorritt) before making these wild assertions, I’ve discovered that I’m wrong. But, seeing as I’m wrong, I’ve decided that that’s not really the point.

The point is that when you wrote post, you meant after. So why not just say so? We don’t speak Latin, as I think I’ve just demonstrated (ahem). Also, although you meant after, I think that in this case considering would have been a better choice of word – if they’re proposals then the main concern is likely to be the concept rather than the chronological positioning. No?

In short, I’d just really like you to say what you mean. And if you do want to use post, other than in an existing word such as postmortem, posthumous, etc, save it for adjectival uses where after doesn’t quite suffice. Post-rant cup of tea, anyone?

Many thanks,

A. Reader

PS I am also fed up of reading about perfect storms. Please stop.