A Word, Please:

“Wrong. adj. contrary to fact, reason, some set standard, etc.; incorrect; inaccurate; false.”

Of all the words I deal with as a grammar columnist, “wrong” is the one I keep coming back to. It's the standard by which all the other words and phrases are judged. And it's the one word I can't make peace with.

That's because about nine out of 10 reader e-mails I receive hinge on the idea of wrongness. And it's an idea that, usually, I just can't nail down for them.

Take for example an e-mail I got from Jim in Burbank. Jim wanted to know about “try and.” He had long ago learned that “try and” as a substitute for “try to” is wrong. Yet he notices “try and” in print all the time, including in Los Angeles' major newspaper. “I see it in The Times, so maybe it is correct,” he wrote.

Jim was hoping for a clear ruling on the rightness or wrongness of “try and.” And for all the usage guides and grammar books and other resources on my shelf, I let him down. The best I could tell him was this: “try and” for “try to” is ungrammatical. But that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Let's look at the ungrammatical part first. “Try to” is usually part of a construction like “I try to help.” In constructions like this, “try” is a transitive verb. That means it takes an object. The object of a transitive verb can be a noun, “Emma tried broccoli. Emma wants broccoli. Emma hates broccoli.”

Or it can be a whole clause, including an infinitive clause. “Emma tried to remember. Emma wants to remember. Emma hates to remember.”

Not every structure that looks like this works like this. But for now, we're concerned only with the transitive-verb-plus-infinitive structure.

So now we can understand the grammar of the sentence “I try to explain.” But what does that tell us about “I try and explain”? The conjunction “and” isn't used to form infinitives. Only “to” does that job. So “try and explain” is not grammatical.

Be warned, though, that in different situations, “try and” can be grammatical. Just as you can say “The Smiths dance and sing,” you can say “The Smiths try and fail.” That's different because “try and fail” are two separate actions. This is called a coordinated verb because it's connected with the coordinating conjunction “and.” That's different from “try to explain,” in which the two verbs work together to create a single action.

So we know for sure that “try and explain” is ungrammatical. But that doesn't mean it's wrong? No, because in language we have things called idioms. “Idiom: a phrase, construction or expression that is recognized as a unit in the usage of a given language and either differs from the usual syntactic patterns or has a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together.”

In other words, not all constructions need to fit in with the mechanical analysis we call grammar. If they did, we wouldn't have “throw up” or “let down” or even “good night.” So “try and” is not wrong. But does that mean it's hunky dory? Not exactly.

“The careful writer will cling to 'try to' as the proper construction in the overwhelming number of situations,” writes Theodore M. Bernstein in “The Careful Writer.”

Yes, the word “wrong” often lets me down. But I think I found a replacement — “unwise.” There's a word we grammar-types can definitely rely on. And it definitely applies to “try and.”


Get in touch JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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