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Try to get over “try and”

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.

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Stan Carey

28 Comments

  • Great post as always Stan but I have to confess “try and” just sounds wrong to my ears. You rightly point out that there are numerous idioms where the verb + and combination is common place, but for my money, they are exceptions rather than the rule.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Michelle. Verb + and may be an exception, but that doesn’t make it wrong, nor does the fact that it sounds wrong to some ears. Some usages that once sounded wrong to me no longer do: we can decide to accept them, and then we get used to them.

  • I don’t think try and is rare in American speech at all, though obviously the question is harder to research. I think misguided editors weed it out of American prose, is all.

  • I don’t think it’s right of you to be calling people who want to make their language a tiny bit more logical “misguided”. Maybe they have non-native English speakers in mind who would find it much easier to say “try to” instead of “try and”. That’s simply kindness/thoughtfulness, not misguidedness.
    I pretty much agree that the meaning of “try and” and “try to” is exactly the same but to my ear “try and” is a lot more colloquial than “try to” and has a sassy twang to it. “Try and” is almost only used as a taunt by people I speak to. For example, “try and see if you can outdo me!”. I would find it completely bizarre to say “he tried and turn on the TV” but natural to say “try and turn on the TV yourself for once!”.

  • John: The survey I link to in paragraph 3 has corpus data on spoken usage: 71% of occurrences are try and in BrE, 24% in AmE (and 24% vs. 5% in written). No doubt editors have played a part in those figures.

  • Peter: If a learner finds it easier to say try to, they may say try to — but the same goes for try and, and I hoped there would be some benefit to discussing how they differ in usage, meaning, and register.
    My objection is to the claim that there’s something inherently wrong with try and: there isn’t. Linguistic authorities and the evidence of usage support this view; I stand by my statement that imposing strict, literal logic on idioms is misguided. The “sassy twang” you hear in try and is something you hear; others don’t, and they use the idiom naturally and with no intended sassiness or taunt.
    As for “he tried and turn on the TV”: yes, it sounds bizarre to me too. It’s ungrammatical in standard English. I addressed this in paragraph 3: “try to can be inflected (tried to help; trying to win) whereas try and cannot”.

  • You don’t need ‘and’ at all for ‘Go find…’ or ‘Come visit.’ I find ‘Be sure and say hello’ to be jarring.
    But I only stumbled on this discussion in an effort to find World Wide Words to vote on in the blog competition. Can anyone tell me where it is? Thanks.

  • Stan, just catching up with your blog now, from the hot climes of New Zealand! I have a clear recollection of my mother telling us as children “Try and behave”!

  • Re “go and do sth …” – this can certainly be inflected, as in “He’s been and gone and dunnit.”

  • Claudia: Yes, indeed it can. I’ll just go and think of another example now.

    Dillon: I wonder, though, if the going and doing are meant separately in that phrase. Some sources place a comma between them.

  • I always thought it was “Go and do thou likewise” (rather than “go thou…”). Maybe it depends on the translation. But even if it is “Go and do thou…” you couldn’t say “Go to do thou likewise”. Well you could, but it would sound weird.

  • King James version gives Go, [comma] and do thou… But it could as well be said w/o the ‘and’ at all.
    I don’t have hard & fast rules I follow – it’s just that some phrases grate on me because of the speech I heard when growing up w/ a school teacher mother & newspaper copy editor grandfather.

  • This is just an observation of mine:
    I think the reason people say “try and” or “go and” is because they are emphasizing an appeal to evoke the will or desire to do something along with the action itself.
    Like the example from Helen “try and behave!” is probably expressing a request that the children evoke the desire to behave, and then behave.
    Does that make sense?

    As for the example from Peter “try and see if…” I think that trying something and observing the result of it could reasonably be seen as two different things, therefore justifying the use of “and”.

  • Laz: Thanks for your thoughts on this. I see what you mean, and maybe it applies in some cases. But I think try and often means exactly the same as try to.

  • I think phrases such as “try and” function as a semantic and syntactic (and possibly also phonological) unit similar to modals (‘may’, ‘can’, ‘must’…). I’d guess the reason the verb “try” in “try and” does not inflect like “try” in “try to” is that “try and” has undergone a kind of lexicalization and it’s halfway to its modal status; that, years from now, may result in “try-and” becoming a full-fledged modal. I’m writing this off the top of my head, without having done any research on this. My six cents/yen.

  • That’s an interesting take on it, Rumiko. The phrase does appear to be lexicalised, but whether it’s becoming a modal is another matter.

  • I suspect it started in Scandinavian countries where the infinitive of a verb is formed with å and the word “and” is og. Strangely enough, those two words are pronounced the same, so a Scandinavian speaker writing “try to” might accidentally use og instead of å.

    Sorry to be a dissenting voice, but “try and” simply sounds wrong to me: it implies success which might not actually exist.

    Disclaimer: the only Scandinavian language I have studied is Norwegian, but I am told that they are all similar. What I have written above may or may not apply to Danish and Swedish.

  • That’s an interesting suggestion about its origin, Mark – thanks. No need to apologise for dissenting: try and sounds wrong to lots of people. But it isn’t.

  • “Go and find out”… one must GO before one can FIND OUT. “Come and visit”… one must COME before one can VISIT. These are clearly two separate activities whereas “Try to read this.” implies ONE activity. One can’t try before one reads. They occur together. That’s why “and” sounds awkward to people who speak properly. “Can you read this? I will try and.” ?? And what? It sounds like they will try something else and then read. Should either way be clearly understood? Yes. But it’s hardly “misguided” to point out the inconsistency here.

  • netjunkie9: If we started pointing out the inconsistencies of English, we might never stop. Try and may sound awkward to you, but it’s a standard idiom that has been common in print and speech for a long time. It was used by Jane Austen, W. M. Thackeray, George Eliot, even E. B. White (he of Strunk & White). If any of these writers found try and awkward or improper, they would not have used it. Go and and come and are similarly defensible and respectable.

  • If we accept “try and” as correct English are we going to accept “could of”? To my ears these expressions are equally (in)valid.

  • Mark: Try and is already widely accepted as correct and standard; could of and similar phrases are not, though they do appear in a surprising number of books. I’ve written elsewhere about would of, could of and company, if you’re interested.

  • I always say “go and find out,” “come and visit,” but “be sure to say hello.” Those, for whatever reason, are my idioms.

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