Word Court in session: "try and ..."

I haven't quit Word Court -- just moved it online. I enjoy being The Honorable Barbara,  settling disputes, and finding out what language questions have you stumped. Do tell!

Ken Heinecke, of Minneapolis, writes: "I have become increasingly aware of 'try and' being used in place of 'try to.' As in: 'I need to try and get my homework done today.'  As I was reading a Vince Flynn novel the other day I noticed at least 5 instances of this in the first 100 pages.  Surely this is not acceptable.  Do the editors of such fiction believe that this is more colloquial usage and is therefore preferred?  Surely this did not get by both Vince and Pocket Publishing?"

Dear Ken: You're asking two questions at once: (1) What's up with "try and ..."? And (2) to what extent should editors mess with novelists' prose? 

(1) "Try and" where "try to" would be more exact has been around for a long time. The inimitable H.W. Fowler discussed it in his 1926 book Modern English Usage, calling it "an idiom that should be not discountenanced" and explaining it as an example of hendiadys, "the expressing of a compound notion by giving its two constituents as though they were independent and connecting them with a conjunction instead of subordinating one to the other." Hendiadys was "chiefly a poetic ornament in Greek and Latin," Fowler goes on to say.

"Try and ..." doesn't seem like a poetic ornament to me, Ken, but Fowler is surely right that it's idiomatic. There are zillions of other not-quite-logical phrasings to keep it company. I suggest you let it go.

(2) Editing fiction is different from editing most nonfiction. The crux of nonfiction tends to be the point or argument the author is making, and a skilled editor is likely to be better than the author at finding and fixing places where it isn't being made clearly or compellingly. But in fiction, the author's voice is crucial. An editor might query something like "try and ..." -- or an out-and-out grammatical mistake -- if it seems out of keeping with the general tone of the writing. But there's no good reason to insist that the author make a change if he or she likes it the way it is and there's nothing that will confuse the reader.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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