Since I started writing, I’ve been paying more attention to how I speak. Mostly, I look for those little quirky regionalisms that can be fun to put into stories. Bits of linguistic legerdemain add spice to a story if they’re handled well. Go too far and you wind up with a nigh unreadable bit of dreck, but in small doses, things like “root hog or die” can add something wonderful to a story.
Language is hardly static. Change is what separates a living language from a dead language. Sometimes the change is brought on by direct experience – as in the case of “root hog or die” – sometimes new words need to be invented to explain new concepts or new ideas. Other times, it’s just easier to create a portmanteau of two words to get a new one. Frogurt’s a good example of that.
Words and phrases can come out of nowhere, due to mispronunciations or intentional changes to the language. My Kenpo teacher used to use simultuously. Apparently, he had an SAS guy show up at his school sometime in the distant past who regularly used the word. When asked why he said it, the SAS guy said he picked it up in SAS training because his drill sergeant used it and when an SAS sergeant says it’s simultuously, the word is simultuously.
Other times words and phrases are deliberately added to the language. A buddy of mine has proposed “crizzle sticks” for something that’s really crazy. It’s a fun thing to say and embiggens the levels of craziness. Something that’s entry-level crazy is still just crazy. Slightly crazier and you get cra-cra. When it’s really pants-on-head level nuts, you can call it crizzle sticks.
Seeing written words has changed the way I think about word usage. Some expressions and words are commonly used, but you know they’re regional dialect and deep down inside you know they’re not to be used for writing. Around here it’s words like “y’all” and “fixin’ to”. I know I’m not supposed to use them in formal communication, but they still keep slipping into my vocabulary. I haven’t quite hit the “I’m gonna mosey on down to the chow wagon and get me some grub” level yet, but I fear it may not be too far off.
That said, I’ve noticed a couple quirks in my language that have stopped me and made me wonder where I picked them up and what they actually say. They’re language elements and language elements don’t always have to make sense, but they still derail my train of thought every now and then.
- Couple of – as in “It’ll take a couple of hours to do that”.
- Try and – as in “I’ll try and do it”.
Taken at face value, they’re not phrases you’d think of very often. In a couple of hours I’ll try and get around to caring. But, why would I say a couple of hours when I could just say a couple hours? It seems odd. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, “couple of hours” is more grammatically correct than “couple hours.” Why? It has to do with sentence structure in the English language. Couple is a noun, but it’s being used as an adjective more and more frequently. Think about this way: couple and pair mean essentially the same thing, but you wouldn’t say, “I’ll get a pair dogs”, you say “I’ll get a pair of dogs”. That’s because pair is being used as a noun and not an adjective.
Somewhere around the 1920s, American English started dropping the “of” between couple and something else. The language changed to better suit the needs of its users and couple went from being a straight noun to a noun and an adjective simultuously. So, even though saying “A couple of hours” seemed odd to me, I apparently picked up the grammatically correct phrase at some point. Probably elementary school; we were big on grammar at Mesa Verde Elementary.
Try and do it always struck me as a strange thing to say, too. Maybe not as strange as “root hog or die”, but still an oddity. If you’re going to try and you’re going to do something, why not just do it? Great. Nike’s probably going to sue me now. It seems like saying “try to do it” would make a better phrase. Again, you wouldn’t say “attempt and do it”, but you would say “attempt to do it”. It turns out saying “try to do it” is more grammatically correct, at least according to the OED. The OED even goes to so far as to say “try and” and “try to” are interchangeable.
Not so fast, though, OED. I can easily attempt something and fail at it as in “I tried and failed to comprehend the allure of the Kardashians”, but why would I attempt to fail at the same thing? “I tried to fail to comprehend the allure of the Kardashians” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Plus, there are too many “tos” in there. Two tos is one too many to.
Therefore, the usage depends on intent. “Try to” and “try and” are interchangeable if success is the outcome. Even though “try to” may be more grammatically correct, it doesn’t work the exact same way as “try and”, nor does it work in as many situations.
What’s the take-away from all this? Aside from the fact that I need to stop overthinking things, it would appear I was correct in one case – using “couple of” – and incorrect in another – using “try to” instead of “try and”.
Does that mean the entire exercise was a waste? Not really. As a writer, it never hurts to stop and ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Try and take a couple of hours every now and then to mosey away from the computer and think about words. Anything else would be crizzle sticks.
Do you have any linguistic quirks of your own?