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.

Presented by

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Entertainment

Just In