If that picture’s got you grinding your teeth, welcome to the club. This little tag is, I guess, hanging on every towel rail in every Travelodge in the country. I see it each week (my day job involves working away from home for three days most weeks) and it annoys the hell out of me. It’s probably worth pointing out that I have nothing against the Travelodge itself – the one I stay in is very pleasant indeed. But still, they’ve given me a great example of clumsy grammar to blog about.
Grammar’s one of those subjects that can turn a perfectly convivial discussion about writing instantly frosty. I wasn’t taught grammar in any significant sense when I was at school, but I’ve always had a fascination with the way sentences are constructed, and I suppose I’ve picked up a lot through just keeping my eyes open, and asking questions when there’s something I don’t understand.
However, some people seem to regard it as a kind of puzzle, as difficult to crack as the Enigma Code. They get annoyed by the jargon involved – Oxford commas, semicolons, run-on sentences, clauses and sub clauses, verb agreement, passive and active voices (even when nobody’s talking!). There's resentment at what they appear to regard as an in-joke for the self-appointed elite.
It’s a common spectacle on writing websites for a beginner to post a piece and then lash out at anybody who highlights grammatical lapses in their work. Accusations of snobbishness fly about; the well-meaning reviewers get told that it’s obvious what the writer meant, and that by concentrating on the way they said it, the people giving the feedback are just showing off and being picky, deliberately ignoring the story. The writing’s the important thing, the beginner will protest, not how it’s written.
Thing is, the two are inseparable. It doesn’t matter how great your story is if the reader is lagging behind thinking, “Now, when he said, ‘We went to the zoo and saw a monkey eating a banana and a penguin,’ did he mean the monkey actually ate the penguin, or were those two separate things – the monkey eating the banana, and the penguin, happily minding its own business?”
Mister Sleep, the Travelodge bear, has a different problem. It’s clear what the sign means, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s badly written. Trying something and doing something are different. They might have the same outcome – the thing gets done – or they might not. The ‘right’ way of phrasing it depends on the intent, and which aspect is more important. Trying to do something is different again. It’s an attempt, an aim, a target. We always try to do our bit for the planet. We may not get it right all the time, but we give it our best shot.
If you try and do something, you’ve done it, end of story – the trying part is redundant. We always do our bit for the planet. That’s a much bolder claim, isn’t it?
Another way to check, if you’re not sure of a phrase, is to experiment with changing the tense. Shifted to past tense, “try and do” becomes “tried and did”: I tried and did my tax return last weekend. See what I mean?
Of course, no rule is unbendable. “Try and do” is a common if lazy turn of phrase in spoken English, and that may be the effect the Travelodge people were going for. Mister Sleep is, of course, a no-nonsense cockney bear with an inappropriate fondness for spending all day in his dressing gown. “Try and do” is probably just the kind of thing he’d say.