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TWTS: Just try and stop saying "try and"

Your challenge this week is to try and avoid using the construction "try and."

Why, you ask? Because we get a lot of questions from listeners about this particular construction and whether it's wrong. 

We can try not to use it, but "try and" is very idiomatic. Also, there isn't really a good reason to avoid it.

The "try and" construction is not an isolated phenomenon. We have other constructions that contain an infinitive, then "and," then another infinitive. For example, "I'm going to go and see who's at the door." Or, "I'm going to come and visit tomorrow."

"Try and" shows up in English as early as the 1600s. Some research suggests that it's actually older than "try to," which is the construction critics generally say should be used in place of "try and."

It may be true that "try to" sounds more formal, but that doesn't mean "try and" is wrong. There's nothing wrong with it grammatically, and it has a nice long history. Merriam-Webster has examples of George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, the New York Times all using it. Even E.B. White, of Strunk and White fame has used it.

The "try and" construction also follows its own grammatical patterns in terms of how it can be used. For example, it only works with the form "try." If you want to use the past tense or "ing" form of try, you have to switch to "to," as in "I'm trying to get to New York this summer," or "I tried to get to New York this summer."

Another intuitive rule for this construction is that you can't put an adverb in the middle. For example, "Don't try and fool me" sounds fine. If you try to split the construction with an adverb as in, "Don't try ever and fool me", it doesn't work.

"Try and" can also be used in order to avoid using "to" too many times. For instance, instead of, "We are going to try to get a cheap flight," you can say, "We are going to try and get a cheap flight.

There have been some studies on semantic differences between "try and" and "try to" in terms of whether one implies a greater chance of success. If you say, 'I'm going to try and get this done," vs. "I'm going to try to get this done," does one suggest more confidence that you're actually going to get it done?

So far, studies are inconclusive. That is, we can't figure out whether there's a meaningful distinction, aside from one construction sounding more formal than the other. What do you think?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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