If you try and think of a phrase that’s common in speech but often criticised in writing, you might come up with one I’ve just used: try and. It may seem innocuous because many of us use it as a normal, everyday idiom, but in formal writing try to is usually preferred. So there’s a clear difference of register.
Try and is standard and fully established, albeit used more in British English (especially speech) than American English. As well as being fine in informal contexts, it’s also prevalent in edited prose that’s not aiming to be very formal or fussy. Try to is acceptable in all varieties, but it doesn’t always feel right or come more naturally.
Robert Burchfield, in his revised edition of Fowler, mentions research that examined 50 modern novels and found try to more likely to appear under certain syntactic conditions. For example, try to can be inflected (tried to help; trying to win) whereas try and cannot, but sometimes “the choice seemed not to be governed by any particular reason”. Other researchers have found subtle semantic and pragmatic differences between try to and try and, as this fascinating survey shows (PDF).
Yet people continue to reject try and as illogical or ungrammatical. A recurring objection, as Cathy Relf discovered, is that try and [verb] implies two successive actions, trying and [verb]ing, and that the phrase is therefore ambiguous or misleading. When I asked on Twitter, I received several responses along these lines (as well as insights into how people use them differently).
But this is an overly literal interpretation of an idiom. I’ve never seen anyone raise the same objection to constructions like Go and (find out), Come and (visit), or Be sure and (say hello). The parallels between these and try and are not precise, but the key word is idiom. Trying to impose strict, literal logic on them is misguided.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, in its detailed discussion, notes that “the use of and between two verbs where to might be expected … is an old one in English.” Even Fowler found it OK, especially appropriate to speech and to be used “when it comes natural”. Erin Brenner’s excellent post notes its frequency in journalism, specifically Google News.
Try and has been commonplace for centuries, used particularly in speech but also in writing by Dickens, Austen, Melville, Twain and other great authors. Even the New Yorker uses it routinely. Usage authorities generally agree that it’s standard and socially acceptable, though avoided in some formal contexts. To insist that try and cannot mean the same as try to is to ignore the facts.Email this Post