Try to vs. Try and

By Maeve Maddox

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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26 Responses to “Try to vs. Try and”

  • Nana

    “But is there, as our reader asks, a difference between such wordings as, “Try and stop complaining” and “Try to stop complaining”?”

    I believe there can be differences in meaning, depending on usage and context.

    In this example, suppose someone was responding to the complaint “I don’t know how to do this maths problem”.

    The former example would instruct the complain to Try [the maths problem] and stop complaining [about not being able to do it before you tried it].

    The latter example is an admonishment to “Try [i.e., attempt] to stop complaining”.

  • Nana

    *instruct the complainER

  • Mike

    “Try to do” describes one action.
    ” Try and do” describes two actions. 99% of the time, one of the actions is redundant.

  • Danny

    The headline: “Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights” could be recast as “Two Judges Try to and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights.”

    Ugly, perhaps, but the “try and” can become “try to.”

    The note at OxfordDictionaries missed the boat: “She tried and fixed it” is a perfectly reasonable past tense of “try and.”

    Much ado about nothing!

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is another misstep of a different sort in the expression:
    “Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights.”
    To be correct, it should be written as the following:
    “Two Judges Try but Fail to Shut Down Union Rights.”

    The conjunction “but” is needed because the sentence is expressing the CONTRAST between “to try” but “to fail”. I have seen this relatedly in other sentences: the use of “and” when “but” was needed.
    The conjunction “and” would be used in a case of success: “Lindbergh tried and succeeded to fly across the Atlantic nonstop in 1927.”

    Several aviators of the U.S. Navy had flown across the Atlantic Ocean in 1919 – from New York City to Lisbon, Portugal – but they made stops in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Azores Islands along the way, for refueling, repairs, and rest. Their seaplane was named the NC-4, and it can be seen in a Naval Aviation museum in Pensacola, Florida. Then in 1920, an aircrew flew a dirigible across the Atlantic.

    Also, remember a pop song from America from decades ago. It has the chorus that goes:
    “He tried, but he couldn’t do it. He tried, but he couldn’t do it. He tried, but he couldn’t do it. Too old to cut the mustard anymore!”
    (It is old-style country & western music.)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oops, in my comment above, I accidentally typed two or three words in the wrong order. There would be little or nothing that I could do about that except for typing the whole thing over, and I and NOT going to do that.
    D.A.W.

  • Tom Moore

    The example of two judges is written to inform the reader of their effort and its result. But for our need to understand the strange usage of “try and”, it should have stayed true to the other examples of this topic of discussion and not have given a result or a contrast of their try. Instead, “try and shut down union rights, but fail.” I think “try and” is strange unless as done in our example where the result was placed as the next word, then it is just fine. “Try to shut down union rights” is much better than “try and shut down union rights.” But, if the result is known, as one commenter already suggested, use “but” instead of “and”. Try, but fail to shut down union rights.

  • Paul Baldwin

    Fine. I suppose it is an idiom. A shame, but it can’t be helped. It stands on a technicality.

  • Amanda

    The difference in your examples is the tense of the sentence. The headline and sentence example are both referring to past events, and the “and” could easily be replaced with “but.”

    When using the future tense to give an order or suggestion, “try to” just sounds so much cleaner than “try and.”

  • Paul Baldwin

    On the bell curve of idiomatic expressions, isn’t “try and” on the fringes? That is to say, because it has no noun or maybe I mean it’s a phrase with no subject.

    It seems most of them do. For example: Cat out of the bag. Rule of thumb. Saved by the bell. Costs an arm and a leg. Judge a book by its cover. Till the cows come home. See what I mean?

    On the other hand, it apparently isn’t required. Eighty-six. Twenty-three skidoo. Scot free. So there you are.

  • philip e

    I have a problem with Fowler’s assessment. “Try and do” implies two separate actions: trying and doing. “Try to do” implies an attempt to accomplish an action.
    Or is this a stretch???

  • venqax

    Shouldn’t Fowler have said, “It is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes naturalLY“?

  • venqax

    ”Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights
    It’s better to try and regret, than not to try and regret.”

    I think the problem with the above is different from what’s been remarked on. These two sentences are not examples of the idioms *try to* or *try and* at all. They are simply cases where the word and happens to follow the word try. Not all such cases constitute the idiom. Just as if you were to say, “The word try and the word and sure are mighty fine words”.

    In the cited examples, two distinct actions are being referenced: Judges 1) try to do something, and 2) they fail at that try. It’s better 1) to try and then 2) to regret, etc. The idioms in question, OTOH, always refer to a single action: try to stop crying or try and (it will cause you to) stop crying.

  • Glynis Jolly

    I’m American so I guess I’m one of those who want the more formal.
    “Let me try [and] help you”
    “Let me try [to] help you”
    The first one is odd. What are you trying to do? The 1st sentence doesn’t tell you. The second one makes perfect sense.

    “You may try [and] fail.”
    “You may try [to] fail.”
    In this one the first one makes better sense. Who tries [to] fail? I thought people try [to] succeed.

    Bottom line: There’s the right time to use both and there’s the wrong time to use both.

  • Ali

    It seems “try and” should be able to be substituted with “try and then”, where “try to” means more like “attempt to”.

  • Byron

    I find it amusing when poor diction becomes prevalent to the point that it is labeled an idiom.

  • Arlene

    I probably shouldn’t have referred to “try” as a modal–more accurately it is a transitive verb, “try,” followed by the infinitive phrase functioning as the direct object.

  • Arlene

    Just a note to the reviewers–you printed my second comment, but not the first. Without the first, the second make no sense.

  • Stuart Showalter

    In the arena of drafting child custody agreements or proposed orders precision in language is of importance. Our supreme court continually reinforces the doctrine that ambiguous orders are unenforceable. I am therefore potentially overly sensitive to potential ambiguities or misunderstandings.
    “I will try and do that tomorrow” to me clear states two intentions. The first is to make an attempt tomorrow. The second is to assure that the effort will succeed tomorrow. The phrase is succinct in conveying both. When there is uncertainty “try to” is required.
    “Two judges try and fail to shut down union rights.” I believe this is a nullity as ‘fail’ in this sense is in the past. The proposed “try to” correction and its difficulties are unpersuasive as justification for maintaining the “try and” in this usage. “Two judges tried but failed to shut down union rights” conveys the meaning of an unsuccessful attempt rather than an attempt to be unsuccessful.

  • Bob

    In use, either term would likely be understood. However, “and” is a coordinating conjunction, joining two items of equal importance or value. Technically, if a person says, “I am going to try and . . .,” there is no need to use “try” if his statement continues by his saying he is going to “do.” So what message is his statement giving–that he is going to try to do something, that he is going to both try to do something and do it, or that he is going to do something?

  • David

    The example, “It’s better to try and regret, than not to try and regret,” is mis-punctuated. It should read: “It’s better to try, and regret, than not to try, and regret.” (Notice the use of commas.) When written correctly, there is no ambiguity in meaning. Using poor grammar to support poor grammar is just digging ourselves deeper.

    The other usage of “try and,” such as “Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights,” is not the same as the original colloquiallism. This example represents two distict ideas: the “trying” and the “doing.” Used in this fashion, it is marginally correct to use “try and”, although in the negative connotation such as above, one would be better off using “try, but,” as in “Two Judges Try, but Fail to Shut Down Union Rights.” The colloquial usage being described by the original poster is, on the other hand, a bastardisation stemming from laziness, as it is easier to say “try and” than “try to” (especially when truncating the “and” to “n”, as in “try ‘n’ do something”).

    We need to face up to the fact that this construction is grammatically incorrect, but has, sadly, taken over in common colloquial usage. I don’t mind hearing it in spoken English, but I do get tired of seeing authors, while otherwise adopting a rather formal tone, using this monstrosity in their writing. If nothing else, it just looks wrong.

  • Luz

    David, who told you commas make the difference there? Who told you adding commas here and there turn poorly written sentences into correct sentences?
    If you have no idea about this subject, the best you can do is avoid confusing others.

  • Bill DeWitt

    “Two judges tried and failed” is workable, any present or future events are not workable.
    “Come to see two judges try and fail” is unreasonably predictive.

    But the consternation is over using “try and do something” when what is meant is “try to do something”. Switch to the present participle and explain how you are both trying and doing something. You are either trying something or you are doing something or you are Yoda.

    The problems is that “to do” is the root verb. One doesn’t attempt and do, or fail and do, or plan and do. You attempt to do, fail to do, plan to do, and try to do.

  • Andrew Simms

    I agree with some of the other comments here. While “try and” is often used as a substitute for “try to”, they may or may not be intended to mean the same thing. For example:

    When Sister Wendy says “I’ll try and make sense of it” she is talking about a single act: an attempt to make sense of a modern painting. I think “try to” is correct here, though I accept “try and” as a colloquialism that has become acceptable.

    However when “Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights” the headline is talking about two acts/events: an attempt to shut down union rights, and the subsequent failure of that attempt. You could not use “try to” in this instance without changing the meaning of the sentence. it would mean that from the outset, they attempted to not shut down union rights.

  • Eliane

    I have just seen this sentence from a text “A team of British lawmakers will head to Washington D.C. next month to try and resolve the EU-U.S. disagreement on…” So, in this case, is it the same as “to try to resolve”?

  • Joe

    Merriam Webster, an American outfit, takes issue with those of us who prefer our words make sense, while saying that the British generally are happy with either construction. Isn’t it odd then that Oxford, a British outfit, takes issue with the oddness and grammatical nonsensicalness of the expression.

    As to Fowler: it’s difficult to to take someone seriously when they use “natural” to modify “use”. Maybe should I say that it’s difficult to take him serious.

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