Please try to understand: it’s “try to” not “try and”

I’ve often stressed that the observations and advice posted here are primarily about written English, as opposed to spoken English.

For a number of reasons written English and spoken English can almost be thought of as two separate languages, or as two very closely related but distinct branches of the same language family. Of course, thinking of them in that way is extreme — they really are the same language. But to some extent these two forms of English follow different conventions (“rules” is often too strong a word to describe the norms of our language).

Spoken English and written English differ in what each tolerates as acceptable. For example, in spoken English many speakers drop the final “g” sound from “-ing” endings. You’d write out: “She’s coming home at five. She’s bringing a friend. We’re all going out to dinner.” But it wouldn’t be unusual to speak those sentences more along the lines of “She’s comin’ home at five. She’s bringin’  a friend. We’re all goin’ out to dinner.” The distinctness of the “g” sounds will vary from place to place and speaker to speaker. Some will always pronounce all of them. Some will never pronounce any of them. Others will clearly pronounce one or more, but drop or de-emphasize others.

Regardless of how these words are pronounced, they’ll almost always be written with all the g’s. Even when writing dialogue in dialect, most authors will avoid heavy elision. A writer and writing instructor I know has noted that when it comes to dialect, her practice (and recommendation) is to write it in a near-phonetic form only when it first appears, and then to continue the conversation with standard spellings. That makes the point that the speaker is using a dialect, but doesn’t bog down the reader. I have only very rarely seen a situation where this isn’t the best approach: heavy phonetic dialect is hard on a reader.

Another quick example of the difference between spoken English and written English is the pronounced “would/could/should of” versus the correctly spelled written form “would/could/should have.” Almost no one will correct you if you say “should of.” But you’ll get a lot of grief if you spell it that way in formal writing.

The topic of this post is another example: the difference between (and the acceptability of) “try to” and “try and” in spoken and written English. For instance, in these two sentences from an entertainment column a couple of months ago:

Despite ongoing rumors that Apple might try and acquire Tidal, West’s social media posts suggest these talks aren’t going so smoothly…West is calling for a meeting between himself, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Jay Z and several other music execs to try and end the feud.

In both those sentences, try and should properly be try to. But why? Let’s look at what these words are intended to mean.

When you pick it apart, the try and the to are actually two separate elements. Try is the verb — it’s the action you’re taking — while to is actually part of a second verb — the thing you’re trying to do. The to part is the beginning of the infinitive form of the next verb: to do, to go, to see, to understand. We’re looking at two verbs: try plus a second action. Infinitive verbs in English don’t come in the form and do, and go, or and see. Only to do, to go, to see. That’s why you should use to not and.

When you try to do something, you are attempting it. You are not involved in two distinct actions (trying x, and then doing y). But while they’re technically two verbs, they’re joined at the hip. You’re not walking and chewing gum, or hemming and hawing. It’s one compound action: an attempt (try) to do. This is the important point.

We’ve almost totally stopped worrying about what try to/try and sounds like in speech, and that’s just fine. I use try and in conversation frequently, although mostly in casual situations and not much in formal ones. But the distinction is very important in good written English and should be followed.

As an editor and writing instructor I see this error a lot. I’m not going to pull punches here: when you commit try and to writing it’s almost always an error.

Yes, of course: people say try and all the time. That’s the spoken form, and it’s usually just fine in speech. But written and spoken English sometimes don’t follow the same course. Although try and is usually acceptable when spoken, try to is usually the only acceptable form when written.

As with all things in English, spoken or written, there is always another opinion. And there’s often good evidence to support that other opinion. I’ve given mine: always try to use try to, not try and. But I’m far from the first person to put some thought into this issue. Let’s see what a few others have had to say, for and against try and.

Grammar Girl briefly touched on this way back in 2007, coming down strongly against try and and labeling it one of her pet peeves.

Garner considers try and merely a casualism for try to, and notes that it’s standard idiom in British English. In the 2009 edition, it was assigned a Language-Change Index level of 4, which is one step away from full acceptance. I rarely disagree with this reference, but here I do. In speech, this might be a 4, or even a 5 (full acceptance). In writing, it should be treated as at best a 3 (to be avoided). Maybe they were taking the average?

Oxford Dictionaries includes a note in their entry on try which declares try and a “grammatically odd…fixed idiom.” They suggest a difference in formality, but not meaning. The OED itself includes try and within the much longer entry for try, and labels it a colloquialism; under the entry for and they expand slightly, noting that and sometimes functions as the infinitive to, especially with the verbs come, go, send, and try. They label this use colloquial and regional.

The good folks at Merriam-Webster provide several useful examples of written idioms where “verb+and” constructions are completely accepted, such as come and see or go and check. But while they’re correct in the general sense (there are cases where this works), they fail to make the case for try and and undermine their own point by declaring — as I’ve done throughout this post — that this is a matter of informal (spoken) versus formal (written) use. I also think that a hard look at the “distinct” grammar they cite for try and shows that their assertions are incorrect: in informal speech, two of the three cases they say can’t happen (splitting by an adverb and negation) can and do happen in some regional speech. You won’t do these things in writing if you know what’s good for you, but they occur in conversation.

The Grammar Underground is all over the place on this topic. Their piece starts out saying that try and is fine, then shifts to it being a stylistic choice, then walks through a nice explanation of what’s going on grammatically, before eventually recommending that you avoid try and. Got all that?

If you look carefully at the advice from Daily Writing Tips, which is largely supportive of try and, you’ll realize that in at least one of the examples they misunderstood the actual grammar. They cite this headline

Two Judges Try and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights

as a good reason to use try and because the alternative

Two Judges Try to Fail to Shut Down Union Rights

doesn’t make sense. The problem is that try here applies to “to shut down” not to “and fail.” To put it a slightly different way, the sentence is “Judges try to shut down union rights and fail.” Their try and form would be “Judges try and shut down union rights and fail” which to my eyes and ears is not a very good sentence, but it would be acceptable in spoken form. Much of their decision to accept try and seems based on (arguably archaic) usage advice from Fowler, so take that as you choose.

The usage pages at StackExchange contain a measure of rampant speculation and incorrect information mixed with useful opinion. There’s an interesting digression on the idea of hendiadys about one-quarter of the way down the page. If this try to discussion has interested you, that’s also worth reading.

One last note on try and then I’ll let you get on to other things. This one’s from the literary history file.

If you’ve looked up this topic online you might have encountered the story that J.R.R. Tolkien argued with his editors when they changed try and to try to in The Fellowship of the Ring. Commenters usually make the argument ‘Tolkien knew more about English grammar than any of us, and if he used try and then it must be correct.’ Yes and no.

This story is true and you can find it in Tolkien’s letters. But look deeper. All the try and instances in Tolkien are in dialogue: spoken language transcribed to the page. He used try and to distinguish characters by giving them distinct speech patterns: some characters use try and while others use try to. This is a matter of formal speech versus informal or colloquial speech. In the narrative itself, Tolkien always uses try to. You can look this up yourself in a searchable online copy.

The copyeditor assigned to Tolkien must either have been inexperienced (and not known the difference) or pedantic (and refused to acknowledge it). A good copyeditor should never mess with text in dialogue except in consultation with the author, and they should know better than to strictly apply the rules of written English to the spoken version, even when it’s been put down on paper. When you’re polishing the words of an author, you try to always do what’s best, even if that means letting characters say try and.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to Please try to understand: it’s “try to” not “try and”

  1. I love how you point out that spoken English and written English are not at all the same. I try to convince my students of this each year, that fine-tuning their written work is not a value judgment on their spoken language. I think I’ll be using some of your points in my classroom 🙂

  2. vearjohn says:

    Two Judges Try, and Fail to Shut Down Union Rights.
    –headline language?

  3. pointnine says:

    Excellent discussion, actually I’m surprised there’s so much confusion/disagreement in other sources, and confusion over things such as the headline you cited (clearly not an example of “and” functioning as infinitive) and character dialogue vs. narrator-voice text in fiction. As a linguist I’d love to hear some kind of explanation for how “and” came to be acceptable (in speech) in this context in the first place; I’m unaware of one. I don’t find something like “come and see” to be parallel. This is, to me, simple concatenation. “Come to my house and [then] see my new table.”

    I wanted to comment also on the “-ing” phenomenon, from the linguistic perspective. No one is actually dropping any g’s in speech, it’s just the way we represent it in writing…because we don’t have a letter for the standard English sound at the end of that word, a velar nasal. (The phonetic symbol is ŋ.) The standard consonant sound in -ing is velar nasal “ŋ” and the non-standard common pronunciation is the alveolar nasal “n”. No “g” is involved at all in speech. Compare “finger” which has velar nasal (ŋ) followed by velar stop (g) and “singer” (velar nasal ŋ with no velar stop). Interestingly, though there *are* regional dialects of American English that actually do put a “g” at the end of -ing, but this is non-standard (my niece from Arizona does it). Sort of similarly (in the sense of getting into linguistics), I don’t think people are really thinking “of” when they write “should of” — this is what’s called a “back-formation” from the pronunciation of the contraction “should’ve”. People who perhaps pay less attention to grammar and proper writing than anyone on this blog end up writing it the way it sounds, and then it’s seen enough that to some people it begins to look correct.

    (I found your blog looking for some discussion of the nuances between “ineffective/ineffectual” and you had me hooked!)

    • Thanks. This linguistic info is deeper than I’m qualified to comment on, but I still find it very interesting.
      Ah, back formations…have I ever done a blog on those? I’ll have to check. That’s a very interesting topic by itself.

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