What’s up with “try to” and “try and”?

The other day my wife asked me about the constructions try to and try and. She said it came up at work and no one seemed to know why either one was used and which one was right. I had a vague recollection about learning this in the past, but it had slipped my mind.

So it was very nice to stumble across this article while I was researching something else. It’s called “Why does Canadian English use try to but British English use try and? Let’s try and/to figure it out” and it’s by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte. The article appeared in American Speech 91(3).

And then I came across this post, “We’re going to explain the deal with ‘try and’ and ‘try to’.” I swear sometimes that Merriam-Webster is checking my browser history. How do they know the exact thing that I’m interested in? It’s almost like people who are interested in language are interested in the same things.

What it boils down to is that the oft-criticized try and is most common in phrases where the word try means “attempt” and it’s been around for at least as long as the supposedly more standard try to. Brook and Tagliamonte show that what happened was try and became grammaticalized, which is fancy linguist speak for saying a word or phrase goes from just giving content or lexical information in a sentence (as nouns do) to serving a grammatical function in a sentence (as the past tense –ed does for verbs, for example). This means that the and in try and no longer works as a coordinator, but now functions as the marker of an infinitive verb (the verb that comes right after it). Pretty cool.

This all happened when the verb try was undergoing a shift in meaning. It originally meant “test” or “prove” (and it still means these things), but it started to also mean “attempt,” which is the definition that probably springs to mind first for many of us.

Brook and Tagliamonte show many interesting things about the two constructions – including how their use breaks down by age and education, and the increase of try and over time – but one thing that I thought was cool is this: try and has a strong preference to be followed by the verbs be and do, while try to can work with a wide range of verbs – even though these constructions essentially mean the exact same thing. Neat-o!

Biber et al. (1999, according to Brook and Tagliamonte) claim that try and is much more common in British English than American English, but I would really like to see more research on this, especially now that there are many more corpora available. I don’t have the time now to go search other corpora but I’m going to offer this to the students in my corpus linguistics course and I’ll update this post if any of them decide to research this. And I’ll update it if I look into it myself.

But go check out Brook and Tagliamonte’s article for lots more on try to and try andhttps://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-3701026.

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