The Grammarphobia Blog

Try and try again

Q: In your May 21, 2009, comments, you suggest that “try and” is as acceptable as “come and”  and “go and.” I see a big difference here. We link “come” and “go” with separate acts. For example: “Come and visit us” or “Go and see if it’s there.” But “try” is a synonym for “attempt,” and one wouldn’t say “Attempt and fix the situation.” Finally, “try and” may be older than “try to,” but that doesn’t make it correct today. Wasn’t “ain’t” once acceptable?

A: You’re right, insofar as there isn’t an exact parallel between “try and” and verbal expressions like “come and” and “go and.” The principal difference is that “try and” isn’t used in other verb forms or tenses.

One doesn’t say “tries and,” “tried and,” or “trying and”; here, one uses “to” instead of “and.” But there are no such restrictions on “go and” or “come and.” (Example: “I have no objection to going and seeing him.”)

However, we don’t buy your argument that “try and” isn’t legit because it’s synonymous with “attempt and.” We could make the same argument using synonyms for “come” and “go” (for example, “approach and visit us,” “leave and see if it’s there”).

In our opinion, at bottom all three expressions imply a single, blended act rather than two separate acts.

No, the fact that an expression is age-old doesn’t mean it’s acceptable usage today (as with “ain’t,” which is quite old but which has been strongly  disapproved since the mid- to late 19th century). 

But “try and” isn’t in the same category as “ain’t.” The fact that a construction has been in use continually for centuries AND the fact that it has been acceptable until recently make us skeptical of the disapproval. 

We see nothing wrong with using “try and” in conversation and informal writing, though we’d use “try to” in more formal writing.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “colloquial,” which means it’s more appropriate for speech than for formal writing.

Among its entries for the conjunction “and,” the OED has this: “Connecting two verbs, the second of which is logically dependent on the first, esp. where the first verb is come, go, send, or try.”

And among its entries for “try,” the OED has this: “Followed by and and a co-ordinated verb (instead of to with inf.) expressing the action attempted.”

The OED‘s citations for verbs joined by “and” begin with Old English, in a passage from the West Saxon Gospels: farenne & bebyrigean minne fæder (go and bury my father).

Here are some other citations:

“come & se” (come and see, 1325);

“trye and speik” (try and speak, 1599);

“try and express their love” (1686);

“mind and confine myself” (Swift, 1710);

“be sure and call” (Jane Austen, 1811);

“try and keep” (1878);

“send and let her know” (Hardy, 1887);

“go and buy” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925);

“write and thank you” (Flannery O’Connor, 1959);

“mind and get yourself one” (1985).

To us, “try and” feels comfortable, perhaps because “try” is used in other casual expressions. For example, the OED has citations for “try for” and “try at” dating from the 1500s.

It defines them this way: “try for, to attempt to obtain or find (an object), or to reach (a place),” and “try at, to make an attempt upon, endeavour to get at; to attempt to do or accomplish.”

We too were once irritated by “try and” instead of “try to.” But then we decided to stop and think!

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