Unraveling a Raveled Sleeve

A hundred curious readers have written to ask the same probing question: Is a worn sleeve raveled or unraveled? Old copy editors never go hungry. They constantly dine prix fixe.

Actually, only two readers have inquired, but I wanted to catch your inattentive eye. Muriel Evans of Seattle and Gloria Williams of Buffalo wrote to the same effect, and both quoted the same line from "Macbeth" to make their point. In that gory tragedy the guilty hero yearns for "innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care." (Bill Shakespeare was a terrible speller.) Does one ravel a sleeve or unravel a sleeve?

The usual dictionaries are no help. They all define "ravel" in part as "unravel," and vice versa. In some contexts, to ravel is to "disentangle, make clear, undo." Other times, to unravel means the same thing. In practice, The Washington Post reported a year ago that the Philadelphia Eagles’ season "came completely unraveled." Two years ago, The New York Times revealed that certain government secrets "did not take long to unravel." The editors of U.S. Law Week reported that a smuggling scheme "unraveled."

It’s a puzzlement. The choice between "ravel" and "unravel" is bound to confront a writer every day — perhaps twice or three times a day. The two verbs are defined identically. My advice is simply to use the one that sounds right in context. If Shakespeare could do that, so can you.

The advice covers an extensive field. At random, we have a choice of rights that are either inalienable or unalienable, of arguments that are inarguable or unarguable, and positions that are either in- or undisputable. A course of action may be either infeasible or unfeasible.

You will be pleased to learn, if you did not already know it, that "unsicker" in Scotland means "unsafe, insecure." The big Oxford Unabridged lists "unseldom," meaning "often" or "not infrequently." We may either untrust or distrust a person. There is a verb, "to unthink," dating from the mid-20th century, with overtones of both Alice’s Wonderland and Huxley’s Brave New World. An unk-unk is "an unknown person or thing." Old logophiles should never be left alone with an Oxford Unabridged. Onward!

We’re talking verbs today. Will Felts of James Island, S.C., cites to an Associated Press story in September. A Pentagon spokesman said the administration believes that at this point, the United States "should continue to try and deal with the Iranian threat of nuclear stand-off." Reader Felts asks, should "try and" properly be "try to"?

In his magisterial "Modern American Usage," Professor Bryan Garner brushes off "try and" as a casualism, i.e., a characteristic of speech that reflects "either freedom from inhibition or an utter lack of solemnity." Such expressions may add "a relaxed freshness." On the other hand, they may seem "inappropriately unbuttoned." As examples, he offers "burbs" for "suburbs," "limo" for "limousine" and "Vegas" for Las Vegas."

The sages of Springfield devote 3 1/2 columns to "try and." Evidently the topic has occupied language mavens at least since Henry Fowler eyed it ambivalently in 1917. Fowler said that "try and" carries a shade of meaning that justifies its existence for purposes of exhortation. It implies encouragement. Thus, the conjunctive "try and stay sober!" carries a wallop beyond the gentle infinitive, "try to stay sober."

Continuing this fascinating dissertation, Merriam & Webster cite to such hallowed figures as Jane Austen, who promised a friend in 1813 that she would "try and write" of something beyond valiant ladies. Thackeray used "try and" in 1846, George Eliot in 1861, Henry Adams in 1863, Mark Twain in 1876, F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, and my ideal E.B. White in 1936. From all this evidence, we may try and find all the authority we need. Carry on!