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In my capacity as the administrator of a data mining contest (I’ve included a link to said contest, even though I assume that very few people are interested both in rambling diatribes about grammar and in the issue of classifying data based on only a positively-labelled training set), I ended up having to look up information about how to properly call the language of Slovenia (Slovene and Slovenian are apparently both acceptable). For reasons I’ve since forgotten, this made me interested in the early history of the Cyrillic alphabet, so where else should I turn but Wikipedia, which has a tremendous table detailing the letters of the early Cyrillic alphabet? If you follow that link and scroll down a bit, you’ll see a letter that is called an “ornate omega”, which apparently “would seem to be used in interjections, especially before vocatives.” It looks like this: . To be honest, I figured this had to be a joke — a symbol that looks exactly like a face yelling something being used in vocatives (an expression identifying the addressee)? It would be like if English adopted “:D” as a variant of capital D in excited sentences and :( as a variant of capital C in sad sentences.

(1) I can’t believe we get to go to :Disneyland today!
(2) I didn’t get to go to the :(ow Palace when I was in San Francisco.

(I just might start doing this.) Anyway, I was unsure if I should believe in this “ornate omega” stuff, but then I found a similar omega variant in a version of the Slavonic alphabet: Another omega So maybe those 10th century monks were on to something. It’s unclear whether this was an early version of emoticons or an early version of a theme font. Either way, I’d like to buy those monks a beer, except for the fact that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to drink a beer, and they’re probably dead by now. So it goes.

You may have noticed that I’ve made something of a habit of flouting prescription and unapologetically using they as a non-specific third person singular pronoun — along the lines of “he or she”. As any good, rage-filled prescriptivist will gladly inform you, this is WRONG WRONG WRONG.

But it’s not, as Geoff Pullum insightfully argues.  In summary: singular they is historically attested (by good writers, even), is hardly semantically or syntactically illogical, and is clearly useful.  There is no conceivable harm that comes from using singular they.  But I suggest reading his post, because it’s an excuse to bask in the glow that is Geoff Pullum’s writing style.

In the earlier post I wrote on the email/e-mail debate, I claimed that, were I backed into a corner, I would favor the unhyphenated version. However, today I was writing my comps paper (on speaker choice in the needs doing alternation), and found myself typing the word “e-mail” into the paper. It just felt right in that situation. And that’s why I don’t want to be tied down to just one form or the other; sometimes the dispreferred form is just better for a given task.

I’m bringing this up not to bore you with the details of my personal life, nor to toss in a plug for my upcoming paper, (although these are both unintended benefits) but because I wanted an excuse to revisit the hyphenation question and give a few arguments against a few arguments that the hyphen is necessary. Commenter mike — who, by the way, has a nice blog and a great outlook on grammar — suggested that this website had some “not-unreasonable” arguments for the hyphen. The arguments didn’t seem unreasonable, but also the author took pains to condescend to people like me and Mike and Donald Knuth, who use email unselfconsciously. And so I was forced to take pains to point out some flaws in these arguments for e-mail.

First off, the author claims that “Established publications edited by grown-ups” use e-mail. We’re so predictable, those of us engaged in this prescriptivist/descriptivist war, huh? The prescriptivists call the descriptivists ill-educated, or child-like, or focused on the lowest common denominator, or claim that we’re opening the gates to language barbarians. The descriptivists call the prescriptivists bloody-minded pedants, cantankerous old cads, or angry old coots. And so on. (Some muckrakers might even go so far as to attempt to claim that I have at times in the past engaged in such sophomoric name-calling, but I’m nearly positive that they’re mistaken.)

Anyway, the author had best hope that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Reuters News Service, and the Guardian don’t catch wind of this slight. I think they all like to think of themselves as established and edited by adults — well-educated and grammatically precise adults, no less. Ditto the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists email as the preferred spelling of the noun and as an acceptable spelling of the verb. And it first attests email in 1982.

Okay, so respectable grown-up publications use email. Next point: e-mail is not a compound word, but rather a word headed by a single letter abbrevation for electronic. Thus the hyphen should be retained because “no initial-letter-based abbreviation in the history of the English language has ever morphed into a solid word”. At first, I couldn’t think of any example of this either. The author cites A-frame as one example, but in this case, the A isn’t short for anything, so we’re not looking at quite the same situation. Better examples would be A-bomb and H-bomb, short for atomic and hydrogen bombs. However, even this isn’t quite the same situation, because A and H aren’t productive prefixes in English, at least as far as I’m aware. It’s not like I can say A-clock and have people figure out I mean atomic clock. It seems to me that the e- prefix is relatively unprecedented, so you can’t dismiss hyphen removal out of respect for the past. Both e and i have established themselves as productive prefixes without hyphens: iGoogle, iPod, iMac; eHarmony, ecard, eBay.  I’m inclined to say these prefixes are proving themselves able to operate without a hyphen, regardless of what previous initial-letter-prefixes did.

And, finally, about the pronunciation of the unhyphenated version. No one but a contrarian would read the word email with the wrong pronunciation*; it’s common enough that people have memorized how it’s pronounced, and no reasonable mispronunciation of email sounds like another word. It is entirely possible for a word-initial e to be read as a long e [i: in IPA]; witness evil. And compounding/prefixing/suffixing words has always led to pronunciations that aren’t what you’d expect: cooccur, baseball, modeled. We are readers of English — complaining that a word doesn’t sound like it’s spelled is like complaining that a part of the ocean is too wet.

Summary: Look, there are arguments that e-mail is better with a hyphen, and there’re arguments that it’s better without one. None of them is compelling. Use the form you want.

[*An old (but not necessarily contrarian) potter could also confuse it with the word email, as in a type of ink used on porcelain, derived from the French word for “enamel”. This word is pronounced with an “eh” sound at the beginning. However, I can’t find this word attested on the internet, so I think the possibility of confusion is minor at the most.]

p.s.: I’m probably going to post quite sparingly for the next three to four weeks because I have to pound out my comps paper if I want to remain a graduate student. And I do, because it’s a pretty sweet lifestyle.

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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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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