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Try, try again

A reader, one whom I have already agitated by my laxity over could care less, inquires, with some trepidation, about try and:

... I noticed that Geoffrey Pullum of the Language Log ... used the phrase "try and" instead of "try to" in front of the verb rectify. I would be interested in your take on try and versus try to in front of verbs. ...

I'm not entirely a grammar pedant ... but this particular idiom bothers me more than most. Here is my take on it: using and instead of to effectively breaks the verb to which try is attached. Let's use jump as a verb. In the phrase "try to jump" we have two chunks, try (a verb) and to jump (infinitive form of jump). If we rephrase it as "try and jump" we have turned an infinitive that is modified by try into two separate verbs (I'm going to try and I'm going to jump).

Bryan Garner calls try and a casualism but notes that it is ubiquitous. It certainly is in speech and has become increasingly common in writing.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that a number of commentators on usage have found nothing in particular the matter with it. One was H.W. Fowler, who observed that though it was colloquial, it “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.”

Merriam-Webster’s points out that the idiom has been common in English since the sixteenth century and has been increasingly common in print for a century and a half, with a full page of citations. The basis for disparaging it, the entry says, is “usually the notion that try is to be followed by the infinitive combined with the mistaken assumption that an infinitive requires to.”

So here you have one more concern you can cross off your list.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (7)


Isn't that a particular figure of speech?

Hendiadys or something?

Yes, Jon. That's what it is. Poutsma says "Hendiadys, a Latin adaptation of .the Greek, (= one by
means of two), may be defined to be an illogical substitution of the
copulative construction with 'and' for other grammatical constructions."

Informal English permits the construction of "try and" as in "try and find it". But for formal writing this construction is too informal. The formal,"standard usage" for writing is "try to find it."

Fowler wrote, "...used when it comes natural." "Natural" is an adjective. Is there a noun in the sentence that the word modifies? I don't see any. Does some rule that I don't know come into play? I'd write, "It becomes natural," but "It comes naturally." I truly don't see how anybody can learn English as a second language.

The requirement that adverbs end in LY is lately come to English (previously they ended in -e). Many an adverb is what we call "flat", that is, has no -LY suffix. The -LY is gaining ground, but back when Fowler was writing you could still get away with flattening many that you can't now.

It should be noted that the Quintessential Quiz in The Wall Street Journal's monthly "Style and Substance” blog has whistled "try and” more than once as an error and calls for “try to” in its place.

Hi. It should be noted that The Wall Street Journal's Style & Substance blog has whistled "try and" many times as an error and has called for "try to.”

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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