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Try and

Q From Peter Norton in Alaska: A recent newsletter included a quotation from Jerome K Jerome, containing “to try and hide it from the world.” Why, for crying out loud, isn’t it try to hide? The most erudite speakers and writers seem to use try and. I sense it is predominantly a British thing, but by no means exclusively, though I have no scientific basis for that conclusion. Is it simply so ingrained in the language that I might as well just anaesthetise whatever part of me responds to it?

A Peace, Mr Norton. You’re going to have to learn to love it.

You’re right to say that this has strong British connections. Bryan Garner says in his Modern American Usage that it’s regarded as a colloquialism in the US but is a standard idiom in the UK. That’s a fair statement of the position.

It hasn’t stopped people arguing. Writers have criticised the construction for ages — the first, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of American Usage, appeared in Routledge’s Magazine in 1864. Critics argue that try must be followed by an infinitive, that infinitives must be preceded by to, and that the expression must therefore be try to, not try and. Grammarians point out that the idea that the infinitive must be preceded by to is a mistaken belief based on a false analogy with Latin. It’s also the basis of all the erroneous and useless debate concerning the split infinitive.

The problem for the critics is that try and is an ancient form, recorded from the thirteenth century. The early evidence is sparse, but there’s even some suggestion that try and may be older than try to. This refutes all the writers who believe it has only recently become widespread. The written evidence over the past two centuries, however, does show that most earlier usage was in informal situations such as speech or letters, not formal writing. Since so much current writing is deliberately informal in style, its usage appears to have widened.

Part of its continuing success may be the parallels that exist with other verb constructions with and followed by an infinitive, such as come and see us, “go and thank him, do stop and think, be sure and wear gloves. Though these are not equivalent, being pairs of imperatives joined by and, they are common formations that may have acted as models to help the acceptance of try and. Again, most such forms are informal.

Some writers have tried to find a difference between the usage or meaning of the two forms but none has been successful. There seems no reason why one or the other is preferred. But Robert Burchfield notes in the third edition of Fowler that it can only be used in the present tense (so he tried and hide is impossible and you have to say he tried to hide). The Merriam-Webster book adds that you can’t insert an adverb (as in try hard and hide; it has to be try hard to hide) or insert a negative after try (forms like try not and hide don’t work). Heaven help people trying to learn English. Merriam-Webster cites a sentence written by Herbert Read in 1952: “To try and keep it alive by State patronage is like trying to keep the dodo alive in a zoo.” You will see Reed has had to convert the second appearance of the expression to to because he has inflected the verb.

Such inflexibility is a clear sign that try and is an idiom. The short answer to your question, Mr Norton, is that it is entirely legitimate, it is ingrained in the language and you will just have to accept it.

Page created 9 Feb. 2008

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Last modified: 9 February 2008.