What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 6

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Punctuation for Effect

Most writers know there are rules of punctuation to which they should generally adhere. It is possible to depart from these rules—for example, by not enclosing dialogue in quotation marks à la Cormac McCarthy—but do so at your peril because you can bet your bottom dollar that it will irritate the heck out of some readers. And some of them won’t hesitate to post a scathing review. (If you don’t believe me, check out the low-star reviews on some of McCarthy’s works.)

Most writers also know that sometimes the rules can be broken deliberately and to good, if subtle, effect. There might be other instances, but I’m thinking particularly of punctuation in dialogue. Consider these examples:

“No, we don’t.”

“No. We don’t.”

“No we don’t.”

It’s all about nuance—each example conveys a slightly different tone on the part of the speaker. The first is punctuated as you’d expect, suggesting the speaker is calm and talking in a normal tone. The second has the full stop (period) after ‘No’, implying that the speaker is being deliberate and more emphatic—maybe they are involved in a minor argument with someone. The third has no punctuation between the words. That’s not breaking the rules to be contrary, but for a particular purpose: it requires the reader not to pause between the words, implying that the speaker is a little flustered—a hurried rebuttal, perhaps.

Here are some more examples:

“No. We. Don’t.”

“No we don’t!”

“No, we don’t…”

“No, we don’t—”

It depends largely on the surrounding text, but each example might suggest something slightly different on the part of the speaker: over-emphasis, excitement, uncertainty, interruption.

Not all of these examples break the rules of punctuation and sentence structure, but even those that do are effective at conveying the desired impression about the speaker. In dialogue, especially, it is possible to imply a host of different moods simply by altering the punctuation.

It’s probably a good idea to depart from the norms only sparingly, since even the most forgiving readers will grow irritated at what they consider cavalier disregard for rules that have been long established for good reason.

‘Try and’ v ‘Try to’

Many of us will have used the expression ‘try and’ in everyday speech.

“When will it be ready?”

“I’ll try and get it done by tomorrow.”

The reply could have been, “I’ll try to get it done by tomorrow.” Either way, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Yet, ‘try and’ is a weird expression when you think about it. Change the reply in the above example just a smidgeon and only the ‘try to’ construction works:

“I’m trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

If we said, “I’m trying and get it done by tomorrow,” the listener would think we’ve gone barmy.

In my writing, I have always changed ‘try and’ to ‘try to’ whenever I notice I’ve used it (except I’ll allow it to stay occasionally in dialogue). This comes from a nagging sense that ‘try and’ is somehow ungrammatical. But is it?

The short answer is no. If you want to use ‘try and’ in your writing—not just in dialogue but in narrative, too—have at it.

For a longer answer, take a look at what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: try-and-v-try-to

 

I’ll leave you with another thought about collective nouns. If there’s a prickle of porcupines and a paddling of ducks, why isn’t there a poppycock of politicians? Till next time…

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