Try and Speak Correctly

Languages evolve, yes, and sometimes they evolve in annoying but understandable ways. But sometimes they evolve in annoying but not-so-understandable ways. My current pet peeve along these lines is the evolution of “try to” (e.g., “I will try to speak correctly”) into “try and” (e.g., “I will try and speak correctly”). It’s one of those things that we barely notice, as we live in times of many contractions and much mumbling (e.g., “I’ll try’n speak c’rectly”). But this morning I heard it on CNN, from the mouth of a professional broadcaster. She said “Israeli troops have entered southern Lebanon, where they will try and cleanse the area of Hezbolla fighters.”

Aside from the questionable editorializing in the use of the word “cleanse” in this context, and aside from the fact that my pet peeve about this language issue is the smallest concern when it comes to the Middle-east right now, I cringed when she said that.

But there it was, right on television, from the mouth of a broadcaster. This error is primarily found in spoken language, but occasionally one even sees it in writing. Few people seem to object, so it’s just a matter of time before it becomes the norm.

That would be sad. One of the things that make languages work is when they make sense – whether or not we are conciously checking the logic. In this case, the use of “and” makes no logical sense.

Here’s why: when you say someone will “try to cleanse” something, it means they have a goal and are taking action towards that goal. They are making an attempt at cleansing. When you say someone will “try and cleanse” that means they will do two things: (1) they will try something (which is undefined), and (2) they will cleanse something.

That’s a whole different thing. And it makes no sense because it doesn’t explain what will be tried (cleansing is a whole other issue because it is conjuncted with “and” instead of “to”) and because it assumes in advance that the cleansing will be successful. In other words, there are two different things being discussed: trying something, and cleansing something. It’s like saying “they will eat and they will sleep.” The two are independent of each other. So “try and cleanse the area of Hezbolla fighters” means they will try something independent of cleansing the area, and they they will (not “attempt,” will) cleanse the area of Hezbolla fighters. So in other words, the CNN broadcaster is saying that the Israelis will cleanse the area – as if she has some kind of Coca-Cola-sponsored foresight that lets her know in advance that this “cleansing” will be successful.


On the other hand, the human brain has the ability to fill in gaps and to make assumptions about things. We see this with various optical illusions and other amusements where we see our minds making unconcious leaps of faith to connect dots over gaping holes in logic and information. It’s wonderful that we can do that, but should we base our language on that ability? (Disclaimer: I’m not talking about metaphorical language, or poetry, or other forms of language that purposefully unfold on those other planes of understanding – I’m just talking about straight-forward yakkity-yak.)

stupid vonageI’m so easily brought to boil over these things. This entire rant was brought about when I saw an ad on a Web site. It’s a Vonage ad “warning” against cable-based IP telephony. That warning is itself inherently stupid (although in this case it’s apparently just based on price), but what caught my eye was that the cable companies are going to “try and sell” me phone service. There it is in writing, folks. The cable company is going to try something (but what?) and they are going to sell me phone service. It’s not that they will attempt to sell me phone service – according to this ad they will sell me phone service, all the while trying something that no one seems to want to talk about.

So there you have it. A very long rant about a very stupid problem. Thank you for visiting the blork blog. I hope you will try and come back some time.

18 thoughts on “Try and Speak Correctly

  1. It’s nice to see someone else frustrated with the erosion of the English language. It’s one thing to witness these slip-ups in our own daily conversations, but when broadcasters and journalists, whom for many people are upheld as the gatekeepers of good grammar, make these faux-pas, we’re starting to slide down a slippery slope, indeed.

  2. They will try and succeed, thus selling you it. Vonage are actually predicting what’s going to happen. They should try and knock on wood next time.

    Cheers! ;)

  3. Howdy!

    So if you had AdBlock and didn’t watch CNN in the morning this rant wouldn’t have happened?

    Yes it was well written and entertaining, but, I do think you should rejig your priorities. Watching CNN in the AM, ain’t gonna do you any good. If you want to get pissed off and the adreniline running you gotta watch FOX, way better than a cup of coffee. If you used AdBlock you’d be able to concentrate on the content and wouldn’t be getting your gums all out of joint over something stupid.

    There are always lots of somethings stupid. Don’t get me started about the museums in town…

  4. Zeke, the ad and the CNN just prompted me to rant. My annoyance with that language error is long-standing.

  5. …and hey, perhaps if people can try and understand the difference between it’s and its, i won’t have little grammar-cop meltdowns either.
    [bonus easy-cheat rule going out to the universe: it’s is *only, ever* “it’s” when it’s short for “it is”…]

  6. I have to admit that its and it’s are my worst bugaboo. The thing is, I know the difference, but I don’t notice when I mistype it and I often don’t catch it in editing. Mea culpa. But there’s a difference between making a mistake and acknowledging it, and not even knowing you’re making a mistake!

  7. Don’t get me started on “ça l’a” instead of “ça a”, that so many quebecois say all the time (as in “ça l’a été difficile” instead of “ça a été difficile”. Makes me grind my teeth but it’s everywhere now so I can’t let it get to me.

  8. I’ve come to accept the “try and” usge, though I don’t like it.
    What really bothers me is seeing “which” used instead of “that.” God, everytime I’m reading something, I have to mentally pause and translate the sentence so that it makes sense. I swear, my lips get tired with all that extra reading.

  9. is there an easy rule for ‘that’ and ‘which’, or am i going to be forced to trust Word?

  10. Use ‘which’ only where it adds to the meaning of a sentence without being essential to it, and it’s *always* preceded by a comma. Example: Our living room window, which looks out onto a busy street, is dirty. The window that looks out onto the busy street is dirty. (Other windows may be clean.)

  11. Here goes:

    “There’s a lot of people . . .” (“Where’s the keys?”) = There ARE a lot of people, hello, people, keys are, hello, PLURAL

    “None of them were correct . . .” = None of them (not one of them) WAS correct –but this is a personal nitpick . . . changing into acceptable usage

    “They were offered the carrot or the stick . . .” = the original meaning was a carrot tied to the end of a stick on a donkey’s head making it continually move forward stupidly to try and eat the carrot, NOT the meaning of offering a reward or a punishment)

    Its not the fault of it’s owner (’nuff said, but I see the it’s mistake in major newspapers!)

    But I do go on. Nothing will change.

  12. God, how could I leave out that comma? Sorry, Gordon, you said it before me. But that was REALLY a goddamned typo.

    I guess its easy to do. (Fooled ya!)

  13. When I saw the title of this post, I originally thought, “Et tu, Ed?”. But then I quickly realized where you were going with this even before I started reading the entry proper. Thank you for bringing this to light.

  14. Came here from Ed’s link in a comment to one of my own blog posts.
    The prevalent perspective in language sciences (my own discipline of linguistic anthropology as well as my wife’s own discipline of linguistics) is to consider language descriptively, not prescriptively (as Nelson points out so tactfully). Languages change much more rapidly than many people seem to realize. Partly because of the internal dynamics of language (ain’t that grim), partly because of fads, and partly through language contacts.
    Because contacts with other languages may integrate rules which would be incompatible with one another in one of the source languages, we end up with rules which seem arbitrary and illogical. (English phonology, for instance.)
    In fact, many people (language instructors are very frequently guilty of this) assume that there is no rule and those apparent discrepancies are just “exceptions” (instead of applications of different rules). While they are usually very helpful, the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style recently made a rather unhelpful remark about an “instinct” for English prepositions. That remark awkwardly reinforces the notion that those prepositions cannot be explained, even though syntacticians are quite good at providing very elaborate and convincing explanations for their use. A further effect of such notions that linguistic processes are instinctive is that speakers come to believe that the structure of their native language is the only natural one and they often fail to grasp the structure of a second or third language. Quite sad, really.
    And full (but late) disclaimer: as a non-native speaker of English, I had assumed that this “try and [verb]” structure was in fact part of the standard register. To me, it is no less logical than any idiomatic structure commonly used in academic English. So, I did use it in writing on several occasions, thinking it to have a more specific connotation than “try to,” implying both a sequential order and an emphasis on the ultimate result. Thanks to Ed for telling us that it is not in fact “accepted” in the standard register.
    A grammatical feature’s exclusion from the standard register usually has little to do with logic or “natural order.” Members of a speech community agree on what constitutes the standard register, even though no member of the community speaks or writes in the standard register. This agreement is a complex, “organic” process as language changes cpnnect with sociolinguistics more readily than with cognition or logic.
    Ed isn’t alone in his disapproval of some language forms, and some of his reactions come from his training. The fun thing to do is to read similar comments made in previous eras’ prescriptive grammars. You can then compare those comments with current usage. Here’s a fun little quote:

    Some of the “rules” of English grammar that you learned in school were devised by pedants who believed that English was inferior to Latin and should be improved by forcing it onto the Procrustean bed of Latin grammar.

    The thing with pet peeves is that people won’t let them free. My peeves are all running in the wild. ;-)

  15. Follow…

    He who tells a lie is not sensible of how great a task he undertakes; for he must be forced to invent twenty more to maintain that one…

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