Word Matters Podcast

Is 'try and' a proper use? Plus More Listener Questions

Word Matters, Episode 18

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We're going back to the mailbag for more of our listeners' most pressing and intriguing questions. Plus, we issue our first correction! Exciting!

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: letters from you. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Today's episode is made possible by listeners like you. On each episode, we ask anyone with a language related question, complaint, or straight-up grudge to write to us wordmatters@m-w.com. Today, we're going to spend some time with a few of the notes that have come in recently.

Listener Richard Hastings wrote to us with the following, "I first noticed the misapplication of lightening when the meteorological phenomenon of lightning was clearly intended. I first noticed this in my local newspaper and attributed the use to poorly educated writer or editor. Within a few weeks, however, I saw the same use at least twice more." This is fascinating to me because in Middle English, lightening and lightning were both used for the flashes of light. The words are essentially mere spelling variants. They both come from the gerund of lightenen. This is a Middle English word, L I G H-T E N E N, meaning "to lighten." And the two words kind of went in different directions with the one without the E referring to the meteorological phenomenon and the one with the E having to do with becoming more light.

Peter Sokolowski:
And did they split at a kind of measurable moment? Did they split in the 17th Century, for example?

Emily Brewster: They were both used for a long time. I think by the 13th century they had split. So that's a long time ago.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure is.

Ammon Shea: There was however, still, periodic use of lightening to refer to the meteorological phenomenon through at least the 16th century. We have John Stowe writing in 1656, "And England felt great weathering and tempest of thunder and lightening in the middle of winter." And that's a not terribly uncommon 16th century usage. It was certainly the preponderance of use of that time was for lightning of no middle E, but we do see it occasionally.

Emily Brewster: And now we have in the 21st century, Richard Hastings local newspaper also using lightening.

Ammon Shea: They're just referencing 16th century scribes. It's a thing all the cool kids are doing these days.

Peter Sokolowski:
But the thing is before standardized spelling, which is something that came much later than most of us think, Shakespeare wrote without a dictionary, as a reference. So often things like this could be, as Emily said, variants of each other for quite a long time. And of course, we have so many examples of this, like further and farther, for example, in English.

Emily Brewster: In looking into this a little bit, doing this a little bit of research, I also noticed the verb lightning, which suddenly struck me as being just bizarre. It's thundering and lightning, right? What a funny verb. And that verb has existed since the early 20th century. But lighten, as in "we saw it thunder and lighten," was used before that for 400 years before that as a verb. And now if you want to say, "It thundered and lighting'ed yesterday," that's what you would say.

Peter Sokolowski:
But you can see to lighten the sky, you can sort of see how that would have worked and been logical.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Neil Serven:
I can also see how these words would be just conflated with their spellings. Lighten, when you add the I-N-G, you sort of want to forget that there's that extra syllable in there. You want to go straight from the light to the en, kind of like the way we do with shortening. You rarely hear people take the extra effort to say lightening when they were saying the verb to lighten in the gerund form or in the progressive participle form. I went to the salon and they were lightening my hair or something like that.

Emily Brewster: Right. No.

Neil Serven:
You rarely hear that. So you can see why lightening and the weather phenomenon lightning would be conflated.

Peter Sokolowski:
I think this is what linguists call lenition, L E N I T I O N, when a sound sort of collapses into another sound. It's moving from a strong to a weaker sound. So for example, like in American English, we typically use a flap for a T sound when it's in a weak position. So rather than battle, we say \BAD-ul\, that's a weakening of that sound. Whereas with the word toe, that's a very strong use of the same sound. So we're unlikely to use a flap to start the word toe. I'm not sure I could do it. And a flap is that sound like the double T or the double D in the word ladder or letter.

Emily Brewster: But the word elision is also used-

Peter Sokolowski:
Of course.

Emily Brewster: To refer to the omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable.

Peter Sokolowski:
Yeah and that's exactly what's going on here. I see what you're saying.

Neil Serven:
Lenition is defined in our dictionary as the change from fortis to lenis, L E N I S, articulation, that needs its own definition.

Peter Sokolowsk...: Sounds like Latin to me.

Neil Serven:
Lenis or Lenis, I apologize if I'm pronouncing it wrong, an adjective, means "produced with an articulation that is lax in relation to another speech sound." At the example given is the T in gutter is lenis the tea in toe, as you've mentioned, Peter is fortis.

Ammon Shea: I really feel like we're getting away from the crux of the issue here which is, who can Richard Hastings blame for this current state of affairs? Emily, what do you think?

Emily Brewster: The English language itself is at fault.

Peter Sokolowski:
I think what's interesting about this question, lightening, lightning or for example, some people make a distinction between further and farther. These end up being conventions that we've just all agreed on. Like the fact that camaraderie in English, we typically spell with the French spelling camaraderie and yet it's clear from our data, for example, on the dictionary that that confuses a lot of people. We do enter a more phonetic spelling of comradery and people clearly look these two words up all the time, because it's more natural to go to the more phonetically English spelling rather than the more traditional French spelling. But the reason we keep it is just convention and that's what a lot of languages is. Language ultimately is habit. And at some point, someone decided that this tiny distinction in the spelling is enough to distinguish between lightning and lightening or further and farther, for example. And there are other things like this, like the words like iniquity, inequity that had been confused in the past that had been essentially used one for the other interchangeably. And this probably a lot of examples like this and English has sort of shaken them out. And there are still places like lightening where they cause confusion.

Neil Serven:
That's the short answer.

Emily Brewster: Neil Serven has our next listener question.

Neil Serven:
Listener Bert Sutherland writes about the phrase pinch hitter, the noun pinch hitter and the verb to pinch hit. He says he does not feel comfortable using these phrases without knowing the history of their origin. Can he use them in business context? For example, obviously this is a term that most of us know from baseball; to pinch hit is to send up a substitute in place of somebody who is scheduled to hit in the lineup. I believe that comes from the term pinch.

Emily Brewster: Yes, there's a meaning of pinch that has to do with a critical juncture of something.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that's interesting about the early uses of this is there's a citation, the earliest that I've seen so far in the St. Louis post dispatch from 1896, and the citation is, "Doug is a good pinch hitter, but Bright is hitting the ball as hard as any of them." And pinch is isolated and quotations, meaning that they've set it apart from pinch hitter. And so I think it comports with the use Emily just described.

Emily Brewster: Well, and the OED covers a use of pinch from baseball from the late 19th century that they define as a critical point in a game, such as when the bases are loaded or when it's a close game.

Peter Sokolowski:
So, in a pinch.

Neil Serven:
So that seems to be how the pinch hitter in baseball developed as the term. It was the idea that you were going to put up this hitter at a time when you really need a hit. Person is there as a substitute for the person who was in the lineup already. I mean, you can certainly have a pinch runner for the same reason. If you need a faster runner on the bases, you put another runner in and there's your pinch runner. We don't use it for defense for some reason, we don't say pinch fielder. We just say, there's a fielder substitution.

Emily Brewster: I really probably shouldn't expose my utter ignorance of all things baseball. Is that a critical juncture? Like the person in the field? It seems like a really different role.

Neil Serven:
Well, my feeling now is that nowadays pinch hitter and pinch runner aren't used necessarily about critical junctures. They're used at any point in the game.

Peter Sokolowski:
It means just a substitute rather than someone who is particularly good in this instance.

Neil Serven:
Right. If you've got a 12 to 2 blow out and you're replacing your starters with your scrubs, the scrubs come up to hit. Those are still pinch hitters, at least in terms of any baseball game.

Emily Brewster: So what does this mean for our listener, Bert Sutherland? He writes, "Would I send in my superstar, pinch hitter sales guy to close a big deal with a fortune 500 company?" Is that a reasonable application of the term pinch hitter based on the baseball use?

Neil Serven:
It sounds to me like he's putting in his superstar, pinch hitter sales guy, right? This guy who is better at closing deals perhaps than the person who would have been assigned to do so before, obviously that sounds like a reason to be putting in someone. This is the pinch we're talking about. This is the critical situation where you want a different hitter up than the guy who was scheduled previously. So that sounds almost like the traditional use of pinch hitter to me.

Emily Brewster: That's right. It's a slight metaphorical extension of a metaphorical term.

Ammon Shea: In our unabridged we do have two definitions and one is person who is sent to bat in the place of another, especially in an emergency. And then our second definition is a much broader one, a person who acts or serves in the place of another. So I think that really gives him enough wiggle room there that he can use it. And no matter what context, you can use it as a pinch baker for all I care. It really covers a wide range of ground there between those two definitions.

Peter Sokolowsk...: Does that mean just pinch of salt? Is that what-

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Peter Sokolowsk...: Okay.

Ammon Shea: The pinch baker throws in the salt at the last minute.

Neil Serven:
Well, it's like they say, when recipes, you need milk for a recipe or something, but you don't have milk. You can use cream in a pinch. It's sort of the same idea, right? There's actually a lot of cross relation with recipes and baking.

Emily Brewster: So many pinches.

Peter Sokolowski:
Both have batter.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. I'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski:
I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Listener Andy Demsky has written to ask us about try and versus try to, which is a classic conundrum or complaint mostly. People tend to not like try and, and they do prefer try to. So when the word try is used to mean to attempt, it is often followed by an infinitive, like "try to listen." But sometimes the to is replaced with an and. One of the complaints about this is that an infinitive should always have the to with it, but this is not actually a true fact about the way that infinitives function. We can say, "Come and see me." And we don't have to say, "Come in to see me." Right? Or, "Come to see me."

Neil Serven:
Or, "Come see me." Right? You can just do it-

Emily Brewster: That's right. We can say, "Come see me."

Neil Serven:
The see is essentially serving as an infinitive.

Emily Brewster: That's right. The see is an infinitive and you do not need the word to. So we can't say that we should require a to after the word try, because that's something that infinitives require. Then there is also this concern that try really needs to be followed by to and the infinitive. But the fact is that, and has been doing this with verbs for a long time. This is a construction that dates back to the 13th century. And it used to be common with more verbs than it is now. Now it is limited to a small set of verbs, like come, like "come and see me" like we were just saying, or go, "go and tell them," "they went and saw it." So when we see try and it's really just the same phenomenon as with these other verbs.

Now, an interesting thing, it sometimes matters to us how old, how established something is. And it's hard to know what the very common word like try just which is older, try and or try to. But if we look at the examples that are collected in the OED's entry, it looks like try and may actually be older than try to. In any event, they both date back to at least the late 16th century. So I think there is in truth no reason for anybody to feel like they have to avoid saying try and. It is true that try to is the chosen construction in formal discourse, but try and really is, to my mind, unfairly disparaged.

Ammon Shea: So this totally changes my plans for this weekend.

Neil Serven:
Well, and it sounds also like try and I think people might view it as sort of like a workup verb, like try and...

Emily Brewster: Try and think of an example.

Neil Serven:
Try and think of an example. Okay. So you're sort of couching think in this other phrase, good to kind of give yourself an out, if you can't think of an example, it's almost as though not quite an auxiliary, but this protective phrasing around think.

Peter Sokolowski:
It's almost hedging.

Neil Serven:
Oh, hedging. Maybe that's the word I'm looking for.

Peter Sokolowski:
More than the direct to.

Neil Serven:
Right. Whereas try to maybe focuses more on the whole idea of the effort, whereas try and almost separates them somehow because-

Emily Brewster: Separates them by using a conjunction.

Neil Serven:
Yes. Yes. Or at least maybe giving them equal weight, which we might assign to things that are joined by a conjunction, maybe try and think are then given sort of this equal identities within the phrase. Whereas "try to think" almost coheres better as one idea.

Emily Brewster: That's interesting question. Is there really a semantic difference between "try to think of" and "try and think of," I don't think there is a distinction for me. If anything, it feels like a formality issue, but that doesn't mean that millions of speakers don't feel like there is a semantic difference. I think it's a subtle one, but it's an interesting question.

Neil Serven:
Right. It's a kind of thing where if I was writing and trying to edit myself as I was writing, I would make sure I said try to, but if I were speaking, I would say try and without a blink and not care.

Ammon Shea: I think so, but I think if you're doing using it, like as an imperative, "try to pick up your laundry next time," that feels to me like it's a distinct. Try to. "Try and to pick up your laundry next time" doesn't really flow off the tongue the same way. So I think there is a semantic distinction between them.

Emily Brewster: Good point. Yes. And there are things that try to can do that try and can't.

Ammon Shea: Right? Like it can actually pick its laundry up off the floor for once.

Emily Brewster: Ammon Shea has our next listener question.

Ammon Shea: One of the great truisms of life is that one should never read the comments. And one of the other unfortunate truths of life is that lexicographers are very bad often at following such directions. And so we've read the comments and discovered that in the last installment of our mailbag, in which we talked about the issue of biweekly, we made some really glaring omissions. Any one of you want to help people out with what those omissions are?

Neil Serven:
Well I believe we talked about the problem with the prefix bi and how it can be interpreted both to mean "twice a" and "every two." So what a term like biweekly, it's often difficult to tell without context, do you mean twice a week or every two weeks? What we never really gave were alternatives.

Emily Brewster: That's right. I think we just made people feel like now this, sorry, this is what you have to-

Neil Serven:
This is what you have to deal with.

Ammon Shea: It is what it is.

Neil Serven:
And so a number of people wrote in pointing out that there's another prefix semi, which can be used in front of weekly or monthly. Semi-weekly , semi-monthly, which does have a fixed meaning. Which is half in quantity or value or half of or occurring halfway through a specified period of time. So you can have a semi-annual and be guaranteed that it comes out twice a year. Semi-monthly comes out twice a month.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Semiweekly is unambiguously twice a week. It is an excellent choice. When you want to say that something happens twice a week and it's been used that way since the late 18th century. Meanwhile, biweekly is about 30 or so years older, and it's always been ambiguous.

Ammon Shea: You know, what's another really unambiguous way of saying twice a week?

Emily Brewster: Twice a week?

Ammon Shea: Yeah. That's it. That's what I go with personally. That's my favorite.

Peter Sokolowski:
There's this word fortnight, which kind of allows for some clarity sometimes also. Within a fortnight, that means not next week, but in two weeks time.

Ammon Shea: Especially if you're wearing a monocle and a top hat when you say it, that one works great.

Emily Brewster: I don't know why American English does not really use fortnight. It's such a... it's British.

Neil Serven:
Well, we use it for a video game now...

Emily Brewster: But in other English speaking parts of the world, and not just England, it's used. It means "14 nights," originally. Or that's what its origin is, 14 nights. I don't know why we don't use it.

Neil Serven:
Yeah. And it has the number right in it. So it kind of makes clear what you're talking about.

Emily Brewster: I think you have to say it with the accent though, if you're going to use it. So, that's maybe a barrier.

Neil Serven:
(doing fake British accent) My recycling is picked up for fortnightly.

Emily Brewster: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question you would like addressed on the show, send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. And if you'd like to let us know what you think about Word Matters, review us on Apple podcasts. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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