Try and Understand

by Erin Brenner on October 6, 2011

Does the following sentence from Adweek bother you:

It is tempting—as well as, in liberal circles, heretical—to try and separate Roger Ailes from his politics.

Some language pedants will be immediately drawn to try and and will insist that it should be try to. But should it be? Let’s take a look.

Try And’s History

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Online Etymology Dictionary both date try as in “to attempt, to test” to the 14th century. The OED’s first reference for try and dates to 1686:

They try and express their love to God by their thankfulness to him. —The history of monastical conventions and military institutions (1686)

Right away, we can see we’re not dealing with a new concept. Try and has been in common usage for over 300 years. This Google Ngram shows that although try to has been more common than try and, the difference was fairly consistent until the early 19th century.

 

After 1820, usage of try and remained stable, but that of try to shot way up. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), try and started to be criticized as ungrammatical at that time. Never mind that by then, the usage had been in circulation for over 100 years and similar constructions (e.g., go and) had been around since the 13th century. Clearly, people started believing it to be ungrammatical, yet try and continued to be used to some extent.

What the Usage Experts Say

By the early 20th century, usage experts were advising that try and was a legitimate, if casual or idiomatic, construction. In 1926, H. W. Fowler wrote in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that try and “is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.” In 1957, Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans wrote in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage that try and is “standard English.”

While R.W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), is undecided about try and’s legitimacy, he notes many uses of it in literature. Finally, Bryan Garner (2009) puts try and at stage 4 of his Language Change Index: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguist stalwarts (die-hard snoots).”

What We Really Say

The experts can tell us to use one construction over another all they want. The question is whether we listen.

Source try and try to
Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) 2,341 38,650
Time magazine 243 8,549
Google Books (1990s) 70,321 1.3 million
Google Books (2000s) 125,545 1.9 million
Google News 35,100 55,000
Google 436 million 900 million

 

All results from the above table are from written modern texts (spoken texts were filtered out of COCA), and all but the Google results are from edited texts. Clearly we are still using try and, but we continue to use try to more often. Surprisingly, the gap between the two is smallest within Google News results. Although newspapers tend to be written less formally to appeal to a mass audience, Google results contain links to many, many web pages that have not been written by professional writers, let alone edited. But the results seem to indicate that we use try to in our most formal writing, and try and is very common in less formal situations, which backs up what Garner and MWDEU tell us.

Try And’s Informality

Try and is neither a new construction nor an ungrammatical one. It’s been consistently used and accepted for centuries. However, it is typically used in casual writing, intimate writing, and speech rather than in formal writing. Before using try and, think about your text’s tone and style and your audience. If you’re writing something formal, such as an academic paper, stick with try to. However, if you’re writing something less formal, such as a magazine article, go ahead and use try and.

What other usage questions do you have? Send them to me!

Update: Thanks to reader KK for pointing out typos in this post. They’ve been corrected. Even editors need editors.

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