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A Word, Please: Helping feuding couples tackle a trying grammar dispute

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich comes up in this week's "A Word, Please."
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich comes up in this week’s “A Word, Please,” as June Casagrande counters an argument that allows for “try and” in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
(Evan Amos)

Little-known fact about me: I provide couples therapy. Very, very bad couples therapy.

It works like this: People write to me about disputes with their partners and, instead of carefully weighing both sides and helping couples find their own answers, I just say, “You’re both kind of wrong, but you’re both kind of right, too.” Advice worth every penny they pay me.

Here’s an example of a recent marital dispute I was asked to settle: “I have been arguing with my husband about the word ‘try’ for years and I think you might be the right person to help me figure it out,” began a reader who didn’t give a name.

“I was taught that it is unacceptable to say ‘try and’ because it should be ‘try to.’ An example would be as follows: ‘I am going to try to remember to turn off the light’ instead of ‘I am going to try and remember to turn off the light.’

“Can you help me? Is one actually correct or is it just one of those things where both are acceptable and it’s just one of my unfounded, not-backed-up-by-reality peeves?”

Well, dear unnamed reader, “try and” is both right and wrong. You’re welcome and good luck with that whole marriage thing.

Of course, like matrimony, the issue of “try and” isn’t that easy. And I’ll confess I have a strong preference here. “Try and,” though acceptable, defies my sense of logic and order. When I come across it in my editing work, I always change it to “try to.”

To my mind, “try to (verb)” follows the same form as “want to (verb).” You wouldn’t say “I want and sleep.”

A June explosion in a residential neighborhood that injured 17 people happened after officers had taken steps to prevent another explosion, but it’s hard to tell that from the LAPD headquarters’ Twitter page.

The syntax suggests that the “to” and infinitive are the object of the transitive verb “try.” It may seem odd that a verb like “to sleep” can be an object of another verb.

Usually, nouns are objects: try sushi, try a different drill bit, and so on. But infinitive verbs often work just like nouns. In “To get a job is her goal,” the infinitive “to get” is the subject of the verb “is,” meaning it’s working as a noun.

So in “try to sleep,” “want to leave,” “learn to walk” and many other phrases, an infinitive is an object — the thing you’re trying, wanting or learning.

“And,” meanwhile, is a coordinator. It joins things: peanut butter and jelly. Often, “and” suggests that the things it’s joining are equals and therefore can be put in any order without loss of meaning: jelly and peanut butter.

You can’t do that with “try and” phrases. “Try and eat something” can’t be restated as “eat something and try.”

Another thing about “and”: It seems to suggest both things are happening. “I’ll try and eat something” sounds like you’re doing two things: trying and eating. So if you’re eating, why are you simultaneously trying to eat?

But of course, language doesn’t give a hoot about my sense of logic and order.

“The use of ‘try and’ in contexts where ‘try to’ would be possible has been the subject of criticism since the 19th century,” notes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “In spite of what these critics believe, however, infinitives are used in many constructions without ‘to’ and some of those constructions use ‘and.’”

“He went and sat on the bench” and “You should come and see her” are examples of Merriam’s point that “and” can replace “to” between some verbs.

I don’t find these examples terribly convincing. In them, the second verb isn’t really the object of the first any more than “jelly” is an object of “peanut butter.”

But really, my point is moot because in language, idiom — that is, standard usage — reigns supreme. And “try and” is not only standard, it may even predate “try to” in written English, according to Merriam’s.

Want my advice? Try to avoid “try and.” But if your spouse disagrees, try and let it slide.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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