Friday, 9 September 2011

Try + and + verb or Try + to + verb?

Following a link on a recent tweet, I found myself on an interesting web page called English Language FAQ. Followers of this blog know that I have, in the past, posted a few FAQs myself, usually in response to students' queries. Grammar rules often intrigue me, and drive most of us up the wall because for every rule, there are one, or three, exceptions.

The post I was reading asked this question:

ELT Grammar Rules
Well, I thought...curious? Perhaps not so. There are a lot of anomalies between formal and informal speech, and this is one of them. To be pedantic, one can argue that 'try to + verb' is grammatically correct. But if 'try and' is used so often in informal speech, why is it incorrect?

My answer to Jay's question went like this:

ELT Grammar Rules

If you follow the comments, the subject of Google Fight came up. Although it's an interesting idea, the results are to be digested with a pinch of salt. To further demonstrate this, and the fact that there are other peculiar forms of speech, I told Kieran, the page's editor to Googlefight 'she do' and 'she does'. In any case, here are the results of that and also that of 'he do' vs 'he does'.

ELT Grammar Rules

Actually, if you look at it carefully, it's rather peculiar. 'He does' display 103 million hits, and 'he do', 2.45 billion, but yet, 'he does' is shown as the winner.

In the case of 'she', 'she does' gave 591 million hits, and 'she do', 958 million, but again, 'she does' was proclaimed the winner.

Talk about anomalies...

ELT Grammar Rules

In any case, what I wanted to show was that there are many grammar rules that aren't exactly followed in informal usage, the third person singular form being one of them. Of course, popular usage doesn't make it right, but if something is used often enough, sooner or later, it creeps into mainstream use, and then, what?

Can you think of any other examples?


  1. Wow - maths isn't my strong point, but isn't 103 million < 2.45 billion. Seems a bit odd that googlefight doesn't see it like that …

    OK, here's my guess - the 'results' are for the individual words - but the chart is for the phrase. The big thing that's missing, though, is the context. It's not clear whether "she do" is as in Chris Brown's "She do it on me like" ( or whether it's part of the phrase "Does she do her homework on time?"

    I have to admit that I'm the one who brought googlefight up in the first place. And I do realize that it just ain't gonna replace concordancing programmes any time soon. But it's great for getting terms to battle against each other - e.g. "flat-screen" or "flatscreen" or, for fun, how about ESL vs. EFL or ESOL vs. EFL, or the names of old boyfriends/girlfriends?

    I was thinking about adding that it's fun to googlefight presidential hopefuls (actually a pretty common fight) but then I realized why I thought of it. This is (totally) off on a tangent but it came into my mind because I've just been reading The authors of the article report that Veronis (2007) found a connection between electoral success and candidate mentions in news media. This was back in the Bush/Kerry days. The average daily mentions for Bush was 520 but only 485 for Kerry, and we all know who won. If it was just a one off, that'd just be a coincidence, but the same thing was apparently true for the 2007 French presidential election. Sounds a bit weird … so I now need to have a read of the Veronis article 'cos I'm not really convinced.

    But, to come back from that tangent, the other interesting thing about "try to" vs "try and" is whether that's something we can form an opinion about without using (real!) concordancing programmes. Otherwise, it seems like we'll go back to relying on introspection (with apologies to any Chomskyites).

  2. It's no surprise to me that mentions in news media bears a direct relation to electoral success. You must be well aware, I'm sure, that most on-the-ball companies (and public figures) maintain a high-profile social presence these days, and there has been a significant increase in job positions bearing the title 'community manager' or 'media manager', whose role is basically to maintain a constant presence in the social network such as Twitter, etc.

    As regards to GoogleFight, I'd be surprised if it was looking at one thing for the results and another for the chart. My guess is more like it has a bug - perhaps it couldn't manage extremely large figures. In any case, you'll find that a lot of popular songs use he/she don't/do, and like I said, you can still hear people using these forms - and I'm talking about natives - in certain parts of U.K.

    And with 'try and', I'd go as far as to say that it's far more common in informal usage than 'try to'. Just to see how common it is in our circle, try googling "try and" ELT! ;-)

  3. what's surprising is that it doesn't matter if those mentions in the media are positive or negative (seems like that old saying that "there's no such thing as bad news" might be right) & it's a more powerful predictor than the polls. According to a prof I know who's big in corpus linguistics, this is a way of resolving the Gore vs. Bush controversy of 2000. Despite what we might have hoped, it seems highly likely that Bush really did win after all.

    I'm at home at the moment (it being a Saturday) and I don't have access to the BNC. But I had a little bit of a rummage in the free version for 'try and' and 'try to' and from a quick glance it looks as though you're right about informality / spoken vs. written. I'm actually very much against introspection as a research method in applied linguistics, so I should know better than to go with my gut feeling - but it does seem that your intuition works better than mine :)

  4. Perhaps it's surprising, perhaps it's not. How does advertising work? Much in the same way, in my opinion. Especially with the 'not sure' brigade. At time of decision, the subconscious opts for the one that sounds more familiar.

    As a case in point: I hate iPod, I think it sucks, and I have my reasons, but I gave one to my wife because she wants one. I use one, but it's my son's and he got it as a prize. Everyone has one and knows someone else who has. But Google iPod positive reviews vs iPod negative reviews, and are you surprised at the results?

    As regards try and/to...I always back my intuition with a bit of research... ;-P


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