Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Try And Try Again...
Yesterday was National Grammar Day, and I've been thinking about one of the long-standing usage peeves. It doesn't usually make people's top 10 lists, but it's been out there since the 19th century (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage): try and instead of try to. The usual complaint about this idiom is that it doesn't mean what people who say it seem to think it means. If someone tells you, "Try and pay attention," the argument goes, that doesn't mean the same thing as "Try to pay attention." Whereas Try to pay attention is about doing a single thing, Try and pay attention is about doing two things: trying to pay attention; and actually succeeding in paying attention.
In response to this kind of reasoning, as Gabe Doyle succinctly wrote in the title of a blog post at Motivated Grammar, "If everyone says it, it can't be wrong." Saying that every speaker is unaware of the true meaning of a phrase is like insisting that glory means "a nice knock-down argument for you," no matter that everyone else uses it to mean "very great praise, honor, or distinction." As Gabe explains further in his post:
What it means is what people use it to mean, and people overwhelmingly use it to mean (approximately) "try to do something". That's how language works; if everyone thinks a construction means X, then it means X.
Roy H. Copperud, in his Dictionary of Usage and Style (1980), also weighed in on the claim that try and X means to try and then to succeed at X: "This proves nothing but the lengths to which hairsplitters will go in efforts to make nonexistent points." (Thanks to MWDEU for pointing me to this reference.)
As a semanticist would put it, the hairsplitters are insisting on a compositional meaning for try and X. That is, if you know the meanings of try, and, and X (whatever it is), then you arrive at the meaning of try and X by putting those component meanings together according to the rules of the grammar, the same way you'd compose the meanings of eat and drink, or ski cross-county and shoot a rifle. They refuse to acknowledge the possibility of a noncompositional meaning; i.e., one that just has to be learned idiosyncratically, like the meaning for any unfamiliar word or idiom.
However, even if you want to give try and X a compositional meaning, it's not as easy and obvious as the strict composers make it out to be. Take a phrase like Try to sleep. The meaning of try doesn't stand alone; it incorporates the meaning of sleep. Try by itself doesn't have a full meaning. Try? Try to what?
Of course, people do use try by itself, if the context makes it clear what verb completes the meaning of try. For example, a teacher might have told you, "You'll never know if you can do it until you try," and context made it clear that try was short for try to do it. But in cases like this, the context that tells you what verb goes with try comes before it, not after it. For try and X to have a two-event meaning, you'd have to have something like this:
Tom: I can't remember last week's puzzler!
Ray: Try, and stop giving me that funny look!
So here, the meaning of try and stop giving me that funny look would not be "Try to stop giving me that funny look, and then succeed in not giving me that funny look!" It would be "try to remember last week's puzzler; and stop giving me that funny look!" Also notice the comma after try: The two-event interpretation requires a pause after try that you just don't get in the try and X idiom.
Ironically, though, try and X does have a different meaning from try to X, but not the different meaning that the grammar watchers say it has. A post by Cathy Relf on the blog Rantings of a Sub-Editor explains it well:
[A]lthough [try and and try to] are broadly used to mean the same thing, there is sometimes a subtle difference. For example, "I'll try and read that later" suggests that I may not get around to reading it, but that if I do, I'm pretty confident I'll be able to. "I'll try to read that later" could mean that I'll struggle with the actual reading.
One of her commenters agrees, giving a similar example:
Gut feeling: "I'll try and finish this by tomorrow" = "All being well, I'll finish this by tomorrow"/"I hope to finish this by tomorrow" whereas "I'll try to finish this by tomorrow" = "I'll attempt to finish this by tomorrow, but the attempt will require significant effort, and I have real doubts as to whether I'll succeed"
In short, there's no getting around it: You have to learn the meaning of try and X as a unit, the same as you learned the meaning of try to X, even though the meanings are similar enough to want to lump them together. Linguists call this construction a serial verb: two verbs next to one another that act as a single predicate. English doesn't have very many of them, and the few that it does have usually don't involve and: come X (as in come fly with me), go X (as in go jump in the lake), and for some speakers, run go X (as in Run go get me a beer).
In addition to this difference in meaning, try and X has limited capabilities compared to try to X. Whereas try to X can occur in any tense or in its –ing form, about all you getwith try and X is the base form try. MWDEU gives a fun example from 1952, in which a writer switches from try and to try to when he needs to use a gerund form:
…to try and keep it alive by State patronage is like trying to keep the dodo alive in a zoo.
A search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English confirms this observation. A search for just the base form try followed by and and a verb brings in 4,300 hits; when you allow any form of try, the results increase by only 300 hits, mostly from the strings tried and failed, tried and convicted, and tried and tried. Looking beyond those hits, most examples are like this one:
…he would love him no matter what his grades as long as he tried and did the best he could.
Although it's possible to interpret he tried and did the best he could as the past-tense counterpart of a command like Try and do the best you can, it's more likely that it's just another case of try with context filling in the relevant verb: something like "complete all his schoolwork."In this respect, try and is even more restricted than English's other "coordinatively marked serial verbs," go and X, and up and X. These idioms are much friendlier to past-tense forms, in clauses like He went and learned to dance, or My dog up(ped) and died.
Another thing that try and X can't do is have a negation. Try not to embarrass me is good English; *Try not and embarrass me is not. You can also leave a to dangling at the end of a sentence after a try, but you can't do the same with and. If someone asks you to remember last week's puzzler, you can say "I'm trying to!", but not "I'm trying and!"
Finally, even those 4300 hits for try and are unimpressive next to the 40,000 hits you get with a search for try to — and mind, this is even when we level the playing field by excluding results for trying to, tried to, and tries to. (For results in the same vein from other corpora, and from COCA a year earlier, check this post by fellow VT columnist Erin Brenner on Copyediting.com.)
So try-and-haters should take heart: There's no danger of try and displacing try to. But if you're still thinking it's bad English, get serial!