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Let's say there is an atmospheric condition where the water in a bucket partially freezes then reverts back to a completely liquid state and vacillates back and forth but never actually freezes. Is the following sentence grammatically incorrect? "the water in the bucket is trying to freeze".

Someone I am debating claims that it is incorrect because an inanimate object can't "try". They say that "tend" should be used instead. I argue that tend isn't the perfect word to use because it implies a likelyhood or a certain outcome- eg "water tends to freeze at 31.9 degrees but not at 32.1".

I would never use try in a sentence like "thunderstorms try to produce heavy rain". They obviously "tend to produce heavy rain". For some reason, however, I find "the water in the bucket is trying to freeze" much more logical in this case than "the water in the bucket is tending to freeze". I would use the latter phrase if the water was freezing or mostly frozen, but not if it was staying liquid with brief forays into a crystal state.

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  • It's grammatically correct. Is it logically or idiomatically correct? Ask that question.
    – SrJoven
    Aug 9 '14 at 2:37
  • Ok, is it logically or idiomatically correct?
    – user20812
    Aug 9 '14 at 3:01
  • Please edit your question so an answer that complies with your intention can be submitted. As it stands, the answer to the question is "yes". But it's not the answer you seek.
    – SrJoven
    Aug 9 '14 at 3:08
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    BTW, you're probably looking for a word like oscillating.
    – SrJoven
    Aug 9 '14 at 3:11
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You can express the idea of a near-freezing state of the water in a bucket, without attributing human-style intentionality to the water, by saying:

The water in the bucket is on the verge of freezing.

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) defines anthropomorphism as follows:

anthropomorphism n (1753) an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics: HUMANIZATION

It's easy to see why scientists generally disapprove of anthropomorphism, at least in the abstract. But it's also easy to see why people (including scientists) find anthropomorphism so hard to avoid: Many of our most common verbs—try, want, desire, hope, ask, wish, love, demand, refuse, insist, agree, etc.—are bound up in the way human beings respond to stimuli.

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    +1 for implying that 'acceptability' here depends on register (scientific; that of the man on the Clapham omnibus). Aug 9 '14 at 7:58
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Scientifically it is ridiculous to say the water is 'trying to freeze'.

But idiomatically that sort of expression is used all the time.

In Britain it is quite normal to say, of the weather, 'it is trying to rain' and/or "the sun is trying to come out". They are accepted idioms.

And the state of the weather is the first thing that a large number of British people remark upon when they wake up. It goes with the morning cuppa. What it is doing out of doors is a national obsession, in all four seasons of the year.

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  • It certainly is. +1. But this usage is quite (nice ambiguous modifier!) idiomatic: 'The sun is trying to come out' / 'It's trying to snow'. 'The paint is trying to dry' on the other hand sounds ridiculous. Where it sounds acceptable is very localised. Of course, using 'try' after non-collocative subject nouns or with non-weather verbs may be used to give a quirky effect ('These traffic lights are just not trying'). Aug 9 '14 at 8:07
  • If the observation about the traffic lights is that each one tends to turn red just before you get to it, I might say the traffic lights are quite trying indeed. But that's quite a different use of the word "trying".
    – David K
    Aug 9 '14 at 12:22
  • @EdwinAshworth: The paint is trying to dry is quite appropriate for a situation where you might have expected it to be dry already but it is not. That paint just can't seem to dry, no matter how hard it tries.
    – Drew
    Aug 9 '14 at 14:05
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    @EdwinAshworth: That's your right, but it is always better if you provide a reason. Use of such an expression is not about some fixed set of idioms. It is about figurative language. Anyone can use such an expression similarly, and any other English speaker (native, at least) will understand it perfectly.
    – Drew
    Aug 9 '14 at 19:39
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    @EdwinAshworth: Do you really expect to find whether it can make sense to use an expression figuratively by counting Google hits for it? "acceptable"? "appropriate"? really? (And no one said that you "have to supply a reason" for your disagreement.)
    – Drew
    Aug 9 '14 at 21:41
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Yes, it is grammatically correct, and it is meaningful.

No, of course water does not have an intention. But it can make figurative, poetic sense to talk about it that way - and people do.

This is not unusual, and everyone (I hope) understands what is really meant by such an expression: It is as if the water itself is trying to freeze but has difficulty succeeding.

A similar, very common expression is to say that the sun is trying to come out (from behind the clouds). No one really thinks of the sun as trying anything, but the image is a good one, so people use it.

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The answer may depend on which preferred definition of "inanimate" is used. At http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inanimate, the definition option b states, "b : lacking consciousness or power of motion ."

Although water is unconscious in terms of a living thing, it is quite capable of motion.
According to http://scienceforkids.kidipede.com/chemistry/atoms/ice.htm, water molecules move and expand on their way to becoming ice. Under this analysis, water is not inanimate because water does have power of motion. Therefore, water can "try" to freeze using definition b above.

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  • Obviously agency is being referenced here, which demands sentience and reason. Aug 9 '14 at 8:08
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I'm not sure if this applies to your case, but this use of "trying" is an urban slang construction that's gotten popular in the US recent years.

Consider "I'm trying to get a sandwich." This just means "I want to get a sandwich," and I haven't actually tried anything yet, nor am I being obstructed in any way that would entail "trying." There's some connotation attached to it as well, but I re-wrote this answer maybe 10 times trying to explain it and I couldn't settle on anything, so I gave up. (note the different use of "trying" here...)

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Walden University Writing Center Staff deprecates the use of anthropomorphism in scholarly writing:

Anthropomorphism is “an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics” (Merriam-Webster, 2010), and it is one of the most common attribution errors found in student writing....

Incorrect: This experiment will attempt to demonstrate that laughter leads to long life.

Correct: The purpose of this experiment is to demonstrate that laughter leads to long life.

Of course, in everyday language, anthropomorphisms are quite common, and considered appropriate, in some topic areas:

The sun's trying to come out.

It's trying to rain.

The plant's trying to reach upwards towards the light.

But even in colloquial registers, by no means all similarly constructed statements sound acceptable to many people (except as comedy):

?/*The paint's trying to dry.

?/*The door's trying to shut.

*The plane is trying to be on time.

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