Try to vs. Try and
A reader asks,
Would you consider a post on the difference between “try and [do something]” and “try to [do something]? […] I hear and read more people using “try and [do something]” but that doesn’t seem as logical as “try to [do something]. Is there a difference between the two terms? If not, is one to be preferred?
I’m always amused when objections to idioms are raised on grounds of logic. “Try and” followed by a coordinate verb is an idiom; idioms don’t have to be logical.
Nevertheless, a lot of speakers object to the use of “try and do” instead of “try to do.” What do the authorities think?
Merriam-Webster is unambiguously supportive:
Almost all disparaging criticism of “try and” comes from American critics; British commentators have generally been tolerant. There appears to be no rational basis for hostility to the expression and no need to avoid it in appropriate surroundings.
The OED includes an entry for “try and,” but still labels it as a colloquialism.
OxfordDictionaries observes that “In practice there is little discernible difference in meaning, although there is a difference in formality, with try to being regarded as more formal than try and.”
Even M-W, with the reference to “appropriate surroundings” implies that “try to” is preferable for formal use.
But is there, as our reader asks, a difference between such wordings as, “Try and stop complaining” and “Try to stop complaining”?
Fowler discerned a difference:
Though “try to do” can always be substituted for “try and do,” the latter has a shade of meaning that justifies its existence; in exhortations it implies encouragement–the effort will succeed–; in promises it implies assurance–the effort shall succeed. It is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.
A Columbo episode has the title “Try and Catch Me.” A rebellious teenager might respond to a request by saying, “Try and make me.” In discussing a modern painting, art critic Sister Wendy says, “I’ll try and make sense of it.” In each of these examples, the and conveys something to would not. Perhaps we can add “effort” to Fowler’s “exhortation and promises.”
How correct is Fowler’s statement that “try to do can always be substituted for try and do”? As a rule, it has its pitfalls. For example, consider the following headline and sentence:
Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights
It’s better to try and regret, than not to try and regret.
In the first example, changing the “try and” to “try to” would leave the reader wondering why the judges tried to fail in their purpose: “Two judges try to fail to shut down union rights.”
Changing “try and” to “try to” in the second example would result in the sentence, “It’s better to try to regret, than not to try to regret.” The original sentence, however, means something very different: “It’s better to try [to do something] and regret [having tried], than not to try [doing something] and [then] regret [not having tried].”
The note at OxfordDictionaries includes an explanation as to why “try and” remains questionable in formal usage despite its ubiquity in conversation:
The construction try and is grammatically odd…in that it cannot be inflected for tense (e.g. sentences like she tried and fix it or they are trying and renew their visa are not acceptable, while their equivalents she tried to fix it or they are trying to renew their visa undoubtedly are). For this reason try and is best regarded as a fixed idiom used only in its infinitive and imperative form.
Careful writers will continue to scrutinize their use of “try and” in formal contexts, but they can still feel free in conversation and dialogue to follow Fowler’s advice about using it “when it comes natural.”
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