Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Try to or try and?

with 22 comments

bananas

Should we write ‘try to’ or ‘try and’? Or are both equally OK? Look at these examples:

He consulted with a trainer at most of the changes of ends, and ate bananas and bars to try and boost his energy levels but De Bakker completed a 6-0 6-3 6-2 rout. (The Independent newspaper)

Enemies of the coalition might try and renew his edicts after Tuesday’s budget. (The Guardian newspaper)

The American writers F Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner all received the Nobel Prize for Literature and all were alcoholics, said Dr Smith. “The idea that drugs and alcohol give artists unique insights and powerful experiences is an illusion,” he said. “When you try and capture the experiences [triggered by drugs or alcohol] they are often nonsense.” (The Independent newspaper)

In fact, ‘try to’ is correct when writing formally as explained by Oxford Dictionaries. So in the first two examples, the writers should not have used ‘try and’.

The third example is more tricky as it’s, presumably, the accurate transcription of Dr Smith’s words. There’s nothing wrong with using ‘try and’ informally and when speaking. However, this example raises the old conundrum: to what extent should newspapers correct the grammar and spelling of interviewees and contributors?

Commonly confused and just plain wrong

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22 Responses

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  1. I don’t agree with your distinction. Although the Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘try to’ as ‘colloquial’, the examples they give (from 1686 to the 20th century) are no less formal than the examples given by you. This is unnecessary pedantry.

    Dai

    04/07/2010 at 11:49 am

    • Hi, Dai — I thought I was about due for a telling off from you.

      It’s an interesting one. I’d always instinctively thought ‘try to’ was correct when writing formally, and the Oxford Dictionary of English seems to confirm this. While pointing out that there is little discernible difference in meaning between the two versions, the ODE also notes that ‘try and’ is ‘grammatically odd’ because it cannot be inflected for tense. The examples it cites are:

      She tried and fix it.
      They are trying and renew their visa.

      The ODE says that it is for this reason that the construction ‘try and’ is best regarded as a ‘fixed idiom’.

      Thanks, Dai. I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice.

      Deborah

      04/07/2010 at 1:49 pm

  2. Morning Deborah,

    In answer to your last question, interviews should be reproduced verbatim, warts and all.

    Hard copy, on the other hand, should be corrected by the subs (ha!) The reason being that, while the content reflects the views of the contributor, not the publication, grammar and spelling should match the publication’s normal standards and, if that takes editing, then that’s what should happen.

    Contributors, though, will almost always complain about tampering with their golden prose, rather than taking the hint and raising their own standards. . .

    Ron

    04/07/2010 at 11:51 am

    • Hi, Ron — I agree that in most cases interviews should be reproduced verbatim. It can still raise tricky challenges though. For example, when an interviewee uses a word that means the exact opposite of what they actually meant to say, or explains things in a way that would be incomprehensible to most people. Add to that the fact that the journo is probably writing to deadline and it gets even trickier.

      The second point is tricky too. I’m thinking, for example, of all those threads on the Guardian online, many of which contain toe-curling errors, even though the comment itself may be pretty incisive. But it wouldn’t be possible from a time or practical point of view to correct hundreds of comments as they flood in day and night. But I still think it looks wrong to publish a reader’s comments outside of the thread, for example as a live link on another page, when that comment contains errors.

      However, contributed news and features (editorial) should, I agree, be subbed up to standard.

      Deborah

      04/07/2010 at 2:04 pm

      • If you’re thinking of the likes of CiF, it wouldn’t be feasible to edit the comments there, but it does open a fairly grim window on how badly English is written these days (remember the halcyon days when CiF was literate, intelligent, and the quality of debate was often higher than the original article?).

        Because of its nature, people are very prone to typos there, but many of us have taken to bouncing straight back with a correction. If a comment is corrected by the writer, then yes, it should be corrected if reposted. However, if not corrected, I think it should be reposted as is.

        For some people, being publicly corrected in a re-post would, quite possibly, be humiliating, especially as the uncorrected original remains in the thread. And especially if it wasn’t a typo.

        Ron

        04/07/2010 at 2:26 pm

        • Yes, I agree with your final point. If people don’t ask for a public lesson in how to use the English language, don’t provide one. Better to choose another, more literate comment to showcase.

          Deborah

          04/07/2010 at 2:41 pm

  3. “She tried and fix it.
    They are trying and renew their visa.”

    Wow. Having lived and worked in and around Liverpool for most of my life, where crimes against the English language are many and various, I’ve never heard it mangled quite as badly as that.

    Ron

    04/07/2010 at 2:07 pm

    • …Yes, I think that’s why the ODE plumps for ‘try to’ as correct in formal writing. I’m not sure if the lexicographer was actually quoting from real-life examples — just trying to illustrate the point, I think.

      Deborah

      04/07/2010 at 2:13 pm

      • I agree – in speech I’m as likely to use one form as the other, but, writing, it’s always “try to”. The only exception would be in dialogue.

        And I have a feeling that people resent pedantry mainly because pedants are, in general, right. . . And for reasons that elude me, that’s often resented. Why is it less deserving of opprobrium to perpetuate an error, than to try to put it right?

        Ron

        04/07/2010 at 2:33 pm

        • That’s a very interesting point, Ron.

          I also think it pays to ‘choose your fights’ — sometimes, it really doesn’t matter. I was just reading this funny feature by the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan. It’s mainly about people using the word ‘absolutely’ instead of ‘yes’, but he also says at the start of the piece:

          Language changes and evolves; we know that. The written sentence has shifted from, as it were, copperplate precision to txt spk – and I don’t mind. I’m not one of those people who get’s annoyed when apostrophes end up in the wrong place: I celebrate the grocer and his tomato’s and his e’ggs. Let’s face it: nobody dies. Nobody is even seriously injured.

          Language isn’t a precious vase that will shatter if we drop it: it’s a robust jug that benefits from being kicked around by those of us who use it.

          That “get’s” is deliberate, I take it!

          Deborah

          04/07/2010 at 2:54 pm

          • The written sentence has shifted from, as it were, copperplate precision to txt spk – and I don’t mind. I’m not one of those people who get’s annoyed when apostrophes end up in the wrong place: I celebrate the grocer and his tomato’s and his e’ggs. Let’s face it: nobody dies. Nobody is even seriously injured.

            And thus the language decays and whithers, and you know what? I DO mind. A lot.

            By the way, copperplate was a writing style – a font, if you will – it had nothing to do with what was being said, or the structure of the language, any more than my fondness for Times New Roman influences what I type.

            There maybe an excuse for someone who has a blind spot with apostrophes (though not if Keith Waterhouse had his way, and it’s more publicans than greengrocers these days), but there’s just no excuse for blind acceptance.

            Nobody dies? Well, for a start, the language does. If I get an email, or a blog comment, in txt drvl, it gets binned. As far as I’m concerned it’s just damned bad manners. I don’t even use textese it texts, I use plain English and short words – it’s not hard.

            I can appreciate the creativity of textese, but I want no part of it, and it has no place, outside of text messages.

            Language evolves – I accept that – but this isn’t evolution, it’s degeneration, and for someone who makes his living with words to accept it wholly uncritically beggars belief. Then, poets are strange people. . .

            Ron

            04/07/2010 at 3:46 pm

            • Thanks, Ron, I know a lot of people would agree with you. To paraphrase a quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire, I may not agree with everything you say, but I defend to the death, cetra, cetra.

              Deborah

              04/07/2010 at 3:56 pm

              • I often wonder if the singer Peter Cetera had a brother called Edward Thomas?

                Ron

                04/07/2010 at 4:04 pm

                • I believe he did: the lesser-known E. T. Cetera.

                  Deborah

                  04/07/2010 at 5:15 pm

  4. Well, Deborah, I’m afraid you’re responsible for yet another dent in my beer money – for a copy of the ODE.

    A careful check of Amazon shows, while they want £29.99, one of their vendors is offering it for £16.99. No contest. A mere 6 pints and a bag of crisps. . .

    Ron

    04/07/2010 at 7:26 pm

    • Oh no, don’t tell me these things, Ron.

      Deborah

      04/07/2010 at 8:32 pm

  5. This is interesting for me as a non-native speaker. I know the “try and” but obviously I didn’t quite understood the grammar (okay, I also never thought about it). I would have thought you simply would inflect both verbs for tense. Like:

    She tried and fixed it.
    They are trying and renewing their visa.

    On the other hand, now that I write the examples…it sounds weird. Huh.

    Also would “go and” be a similar case?

    TaleTellerin

    04/07/2010 at 9:52 pm

    • Hi, TaleTellerin — that’s a very interesting and pertinent question.

      ‘Go and’ is also considered a grammatical oddity by some grammarians — although in common use and still absolutely fine when speaking and writing informally. Personally, ‘try and’ grates more on me than ‘go and’ (in formal writing), but if writing very formally, I would probably stick to both ‘try to’ and ‘go to’. (Dictionary example: ‘I must go to change’ rather than ‘I must go and change’.)

      ‘Come and/to’ is another case in point (as in ‘Come and/to see the film’).

      Deborah

      05/07/2010 at 9:18 am

    • It might be more correct to say that “try and” won’t make sense if you inflect it for any tense except future. It will always have a prospective, speculative sense. If you say “tried and fixed it,” it’s not “trying” anymore because it worked — successfully. Same with present progressive “trying and fixing”: if you’re fixing it — successfully — you no longer need to try.

      So, in those cases, you’d say “tried to fix it” — not successfully or not assuredly — and “trying to fix it” — outcome not yet known.

      Michael Farrell

      05/07/2010 at 5:22 pm

      • Thanks, Michael — that’s a very useful way of thinking about it.

        Deborah

        05/07/2010 at 5:26 pm

  6. Another irresistible bit of perfection. I really appreciate these regular infusions of grammar, punctuation, and writing tips. You definitely busted me on “irresistable” and I am very grateful that you did so.

    Sandra Lee

    04/07/2010 at 11:08 pm

    • I busted you? Absolutely unintentionally, and if I did you have taken it very graciously. Thank you for your kind words which I appreciate very much.

      Deborah

      05/07/2010 at 8:51 am


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