<< back to the archive list

September 19th, 2007

Flied out? / try and / a whole nother

by Barbara Wallraff

Mark O’Keefe, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., writes: “When a baseball player flies out, announcers invariably say something like ‘Last time up he flied out too.’ I believe the correct wording should be ‘He flew out.’ Your decision?”

Dear Mark: “Flew out” is appropriate for away games, except when the team took a bus.

Sorry. Just kidding. In his classic style manual “The Careful Writer,” published in 1965, Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You won’t find it in most dictionaries, but ‘flied’ is the past tense of ‘fly’ in one specialized field: baseball.” The only thing wrong with that pronouncement today is that you do find this fact noted in contemporary dictionaries.

Why is “flied” right? It’s because the verb comes to us directly from the noun “fly,” meaning “a fly ball.” As Steven Pinker explains in his classic 1994 book “The Language Instinct,” this is the same logic according to which we say “‘They ringed the city with artillery’ (‘formed a ring around it’), not ‘They rang the city with artillery,’ and ‘He grandstanded to the crowd’ (‘played to the grandstand’), not ‘He grandstood to the crowd.’” When we make verbs out of nouns, we instinctively make them regular — so “fly” in baseball follows the same, regular pattern as “cry” and “try,” with a past tense that ends in “-ied.”

Eric DeCarlo, of Schenectady, N.Y., writes: “I often hear or read the word ‘and’ used when I think the word ‘to’ would make more sense. For example, ‘I am going to try and get some work done tonight’ or ‘Try and see if you can go out today.’ Is it correct to use ‘and’ in these sentences?”

Dear Eric: “Try and” is informal, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, it has a good long history. In his 1926 book “Modern English Usage,” H.W. Fowler argued that it’s an example of “hendiadys” — “the expressing of a compound notion by giving its two constituents as though they were independent,” a construction that was “chiefly a poetic ornament in Greek and Latin.” That’s a bit fancy, I think. In casual conversation, “and” doesn’t bother me in “try and ...” or a few other phrases, like “look and see” or “nice and warm.” But none of these belongs in formal, crafted writing.

Brian Hagen, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Any idea as to the source of that odd phrase ‘whole ’nother (something)’? The ‘’nother’ bit could only imply ‘another.’ But ‘whole another’ not only sounds clumsy — it doesn’t make sense!”

Dear Brian: Now that I have my copy of Fowler down off the shelf, I can tell you that this rhetorical device is called “tmesis,” which means “cutting” in Latin. The idea is that “another” has been cut in two, and “whole” popped into the middle. You’re right that “whole another” doesn’t make sense — but “a whole other” does.

Formerly, there were elegant examples of tmesis, like this one from the King James Bible: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law.” Alas, nowadays the device is more often heard in the likes of “Un-freaking-believable!”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list