I didn’t vote in the California primary this year, predominantly out of protest over the absurdity of our flawed primary system, partially out of solidarity for those shut out of the process in Florida and Michigan, and partially because I wasn’t strongly for or against any of the candidates at the time. However, on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, I am reminded of the fact that one should always vote, even if only to negate people like this reader of The Lehigh Valley Morning Call:

“So far, Hillary has my vote because she says she will ‘try to’ do something. I’ve heard most of the other candidates from both parties say they will ‘try and’ do something. I don’t know where this ‘try and’ thing ever came from, but it’s becoming so common that almost everyone uses it. It’s ugly, awkward and incorrect. I hope this terrible misuse of the language can be stopped.”

This is not how to make a political decision. First off, (completely ignoring the likely satirical stance of the reader) proper grammar has nothing to do with the necessary qualities of a president. That would be like voting for a president on the basis of hairstyle or fashion sense. Good hair and fashion sense might well be indicative of an attention to detail that is useful as a president. So too might exceedingly proper grammar. But it also might reflect an underlying belief in style over substance, or an inability to relate to the common man. (It’s interesting to note that Obama, who’s now under fire for his “elitism”, was accused by this complainant of being a member of the grammatical unwashed.)

As far as I’m concerned (and I say this as someone who often misspeaks), the propriety of a president’s grammar has no bearing on their ability to lead the nation. I’m not against Bush for his frequent grammar missteps any more than I am against Dan Quayle for misspelling ‘potato’. Speaking is hard, and if you’re in the public spotlight, you’re going to mess up from time to time. All I’m saying is, no one’s perfect, calm the heck down. Even if you think that try and is a grievous grammatical error (which it’s not, as we’ll see), let he who is without questionable usage cast the first stone.

But more to the point of this blog, I’ve got some leads for the complainant on where — and when — this try and thing came from, and the answer is, as usual, from extension of an existing acceptable construction somewhere around the 1700s. I’m assuming you’re all familiar with the phrases come and and go and, as in:

(1) I’ll go and see what episode of Antiques Roadshow is on.
(2) Would you come and tell me whether the appraiser I like is on?

I don’t think anyone is going to say (1) or (2) are bad grammar. They’re definitely fine by me, and they’re attested well into the past at the OED (see and, B. 10). Anyway, the same basic construction, where the action of the first verb (come, go) occurs before the action of the second verb of the second one (see, tell), got applied with a few other first verbs, such as try. This yielded sentences like:

(3) Vic’s going to try and fit twenty-seven grapes in his mouth tonight.

This extension makes some sense: first Vic will try to fit the grapes in his mouth, and then he will fit the grapes in his mouth, just as in (1), I will go and then see. (It’s a little weird with try because it’s difficult to clearly say whether the final outcome should count as part of the act of trying. If I’m trying to hit a home run, and I do hit a home run, at what point did I stop trying and start doing it? It’s a sticky metaphysical situation.)

Independent of its sensibility, though, the try and extension has some history behind it. The first attestation in the OED is in 1878, in an economics primer. Google Books has examples dating back to — saints be praised! — 1603, 1657, and 1662. It’s not a new phenomenon and it used to be used in formal writings. In fact, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage hypothesizes that try and predates try to. Nowadays, though, try and is somewhat more colloquial; to me, at least, it looks out of place in formal writing. That’s not to say it does not appear in writing; in fact, the construction is commonplace in modern books, but seems more common in ones with a slightly informal tone.

But there’s nothing wrong with saying try and; it’s old, it’s well-attested, and it’s got a reasonable lineage. So please don’t base your vote on whether or not a candidate says it. Unless, of course, you’re voting in favor of a candidate who uses try and, who’s willing to stand by history and ignores the ill-informed objections of armies of pedants. That would show character.

Summary: try and is a venerable old construction with 400 years of usage backing it. For whatever reason, it’s no longer considered sufficiently formal for formal/business writing, but it’s still fine in most writing styles and certainly in speech. As Fowler said: “It is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.”

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