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I am well aware that a similar question has been asked in the past, namely “Try to save” or “try saving”. However, I am not totally satisfied by the posted answers. My problem is that, every time I think I have understood when to use try + infinitive and try + verb + ing (gerund), I forget and mix them up.

I would like a mnemonic, or an infallible reminder which is which, whenever I need to write, speak or teach this construction to private students.

In my grammar books the "rule" stated is:

Try + infinitive = make an effort to do something

Try + gerund = experiment to see if something works

If I ask someone: "Can you try opening this jar?" or "Can you try to open this jar?" Am I not in effect saying the same thing? It appears to me the difference in meaning is negligible.

If I change the verb try in the past:

"I tried to open the jar."

and

"I tried opening the jar."

Don't they both mean I was unsuccessful in my attempts to open the jar?

In any case, the next time I meet up with this construction, I would like to not have to double check in my grammar books. So any tips?

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10  
"I tried to open the jar" means that you tried and failed to open it. "I tried opening the jar" means that you opened the jar, but it didn't have the effects you wanted it to have. This difference is probably better illustrated in a different context: consider a car that doesn't start, "I tried replacing the battery" means that you put in a new battery, but it still didn't start, while "I tried to replace the battery" means you attempted to put in a new battery but did not succeed. –  Peter Shor Jun 23 '13 at 22:17
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@PeterShor Therefore :"I tried opening the jar but it was too hard" would not make sense? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 23 '13 at 22:21
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Authorities differ over whether try + ing-form may mean the same as try + to-infinitive. Webster's licenses this equivalence ( thefreedictionary.com/try ): try 1. to attempt to do or accomplish: Try running a mile a day. Wiktionary doesn't ( en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:English_catenative_verbs ). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 22:27
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In conversation, I think '(This room is medieval.) Just try opening the top window!' would be more common than 'Just try to open the top window!'. The usages are illogical (as we often find in our wondrous language) - the only 'trick or infallible reminder which ... I need to ... teach ... private students' I can suggest is switch to maths. In the meantime, be prepared to question lots of things stated as Gospel in grammars. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 22:40
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Incidentally, no-one seems to have addressed the question in yout title, regarding “Can you try to open this jar?” v. “Can you try opening this jar?” I'm interested because I can't currently think of any difference between the two, when posed as a question. –  TrevorD Jun 23 '13 at 23:28

8 Answers 8

up vote 3 down vote accepted
+150

If you try to do something, you make an attempt to do that something.

The use of the word 'try' followed by a to- infinitive suggests that you are not sure whether you will succeed in a future attempt: I am trying to open the window. I will try to open the window.

It suggests you did not succeed in a past attempt: I tried to open the window.

If you try doing something, you actually do it. The use of the word 'try' followed by a gerund suggests that you are want to see if the result of what you do will have some effect: The room is very stuffy; I will try opening the window (to see if that helps).

'Can you ...?' introducing a request to somebody to try to do / try doing something does not change the meanings of the try constructions.

Can you try to open the window? This is request to somebody to make the attempt to open the window. The speaker is not sure whether the person addressed will succeed. It is possible that somebody else has already tried, and failed.

Can you try opening the window? This is a request to somebody to open the window. The speaker hopes that the opening of the window will have some effect, such as letting some fresh air into a stuffy room.

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I very much appreciated your clear explanation, especially the "I will try opening the window (to see if that helps)". Thank you. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 29 at 15:47
    
Thank you so much for such a clear answer. I also loved @JK2's tip, but your explanation cinched it for me. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 31 at 10:19

Try + infinitive = make an effort to do something

Try + gerund = experiment to see if something works or make an effort to do something

The catenation with the to-infinitive has an unambiguous meaning.

The catenation with the ing-form may take either of the given meanings.

Context will often indicate which meaning is intended here:

-It's stuffy in here - I'm feeling rather light-headed.

-Try opening the window.

-Have you tried opening it recently?

If ambiguity remains, the statement should be rephrased:

See if running three miles every morning makes an improvement.

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Couldn't I say: Have you tried to open the window recently? (Maybe I know the window has been stuck in the past.) –  Mari-Lou A Jun 24 '13 at 7:04
    
I like your tip of substituting try with see if (verb + ing) makes an improvement. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 24 '13 at 7:08
    
@Mari-Lou A: Certainly (though I feel most people would choose the ing-form catenation here, partly because it's a smart rejoinder). I'm illustrating that the -ing form can also be used with this (try opening = attempt/try to open) meaning, not that it must be. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 24 '13 at 7:13
    
That's not true. There is no logical difference between these forms. The only difference is grammar and that the gerund is like a noun. For example, using your example you can do this: "See if James/dog/monkey makes an improvement." –  Derfder Jun 24 '13 at 11:10
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@Derfder Differences in usage aren't always 'logical'. Indeed, the English language itself is often not 'logical'. –  TrevorD Jun 24 '13 at 13:46

(1) Try to-infinitive ==> Try (in order) to-infinitive

(2) Try -ing ==> Try (by) -ing

In (1), think of the to-infinitive as a purpose not yet actualized at the time of "trying".

In (2), think of the "-ing" as some action being actualized at the time of "trying", with the purpose of "trying" being only recoverable from context.

This way, you will never confuse the two.

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A very nice smart tip. Thank you. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 29 at 15:45
  • I tried to Y

  • I tried Y-ing

If you 'tried to Y', your goal was Y.

If you tried Y-ing, Y isn't (necessarily) what you wanted. It's just what you did to get Z.

For example:

  • I tried to stroke the baboon. ( - because I wanted to stroke him)

  • I tried stroking the baboon. ( - because I wanted him to release my friend's leg from his jaws)

Mnemonic

Now when you try stroking the baboon, it is just an ingenious plan to get something else ( - your arm released from its fangs).

Generally, when you try doing something, it's an ingenious plan to achieve something else.

  • I tried being nice ( an ingenious plan to get her to co-operate)
  • I tried hollering (an ingenious plan to get myself rescued)
  • I tried not going on ELU any more (an ingenious plan to make my girlfriend less angry with me)

'Try to Y' is when Y is the ultimate goal.

'Try Y-ing' is when Y is a means (an ingenious plan) to a different goal.

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Any tips on why the down-vote? :) –  Araucaria Oct 31 at 1:37
    
+1 Oh my God! I didn't see your answer. I'm so sorry! I would have waited two more days, if I had. I'm so sorry. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 31 at 10:20
    
@Mari-LouA No worries! I hope the mnemonic works! :) –  Araucaria Oct 31 at 10:46

Addressing solely your penultimate question of

When the verb try is in the past tense:

I tried to open the jar.
I tried opening the jar.

Don't they both mean I failed to open the jar?

I don't agree that they necessarily mean the same. For example, I think the following are quite acceptable usages in certain circumstances:

I tried opening the jar, and had no difficulty doing so.
I tried opening the jar, but found the jam had mould on it.

I don't think you could use I tried to open ... in a similar way, and that that does usually indicate a failure - provided that you consider this a failure:

I tried to open the jar, but it broke.

[This answer duplicates and supplements one of my earlier comments, as requested by the OP.]

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Glad you wrote that bit. Your examples do help me but... you haven't answered the two other questions: 1) The difference between Can you try to open...? and Can you try opening...? 2) A mnemonic to help me not to confuse the two. Which leads me to suspect that you tried to, but failed. :) –  Mari-Lou A Jun 24 '13 at 13:37
    
As regards (1), see my earlier comment where I said "I'm interested because I can't currently think of any difference between the two, when posed as a question." So in one sense I tried & failed - and want to know the answer myself! As regards (2), I admit I haven't tried(!) because I'm not good on mnemonics. –  TrevorD Jun 24 '13 at 13:42

I think that the answer John Lawler posted on that other question is the right answer, but let me try parroting it back a little differently in the context of your specific question.

With past tense, the difference in usage is whether you're implying success, failure, or neither. The "-ing" form can be used either way, but the "to" form implies failure, because of the rule John L cited. In the examples below, (2) would be understood, but some might say it's technically incorrect.

Success:

(1) I tried opening the jar, and it finally opened!

(2) I tried to open the jar, and it finally opened! (weird usage)

Failure:

(3) I tried opening the jar, but it was stuck fast.

(4) I tried to open the jar, but it was stuck fast.

With present tense, the difference in usage is whether you're implying experimentation or a desire to accomplish a goal. Again, the "-ing" form can be used either way, but the "to" form implies that you want someone to take an action or accomplish a goal. Therefore (2) is once again weird at best, and incorrect at worst.

Experimentation:

(1) "I'm hot." "Try opening the window."

(2) "I'm hot." "Try to open the window." (weird usage)

Desired Action:

(1) "The window's stuck. Can you try opening it?"

(2) "The window's stuck. Can you try to open it?"

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I think you must mean "I'm hot". Italians would literally go berserk if you opened a window if they felt cold! :) –  Mari-Lou A Jun 24 '13 at 13:53
    
@Mari-Lou - That was kind of silly wasn't it :) Clearly I have summer on the brain. –  Lynn Jun 24 '13 at 14:51

The normal verb construction is try to do ( to do stands for any infinitive). A special construction is to try doing.

An example:

If you want to improve your English try writing little texts of your own.

As the gerund has a verbal and noun character you can transform this into:

Make an attempt at writing texts of your own.
or
Make an attempt by writing your own stories.

The gerund construction has a meaning that is a bit different from the to-do construction. You can say I tried to convince him but it was in vain. But you couldn't say I tried convincing him. This would make no sense.

A a memo aid you should remember that verb + to-infinitive is the most frequent construction, and it is the normal construction for to try.

To try doing always means something special, "to make an attempt with doing something". Perhaps you should collect good situations and examples where to try + gerund is used - either in grammars or dictionaries or in novels. I don't have good example material at hand, but one example that comes to my mind would be:

If you suffer from backache try swimming. That's good for strengthening your muscles.

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Thanks for the hint to the typo. I've corrected it. - As to me "I tried with convincing him" doesn't make much sense. –  rogermue Oct 26 at 15:00
    
I like your last sentence. But what's wrong with: "I tried convincing him"? It makes sense to me. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 26 at 15:02
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@Mari-Lou: I assume by now we all accept that try+gerund normally implies the action defined by gerund was actually accomplished, but for some reason this didn't achieve the underlying intended purpose. So the problem with "I tried convincing him" is simply that there aren't many contexts where you could successfully convince him, yet still not achieve your goal. Maybe "I tried convincing him not to drink so much, but even when he was sober he'd still sometimes get mad and knock me about". –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 at 0:03
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@Mari-Lou: No. Per Peter's first comment to the question, past tense tried to do X means you made the effort, but were unable to do X (convince him to stop drinking, in my example). If you tried doing X, that means you successfully did X (got him to drink less), but this failed to achieve your ultimate purpose (get him to stop knocking you about). –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 at 12:39
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@FumbleFingers, Mari-lou Actually, if you read Lawler's post, what he says is that there's an implication arising from tried to open - it does not mean that he did not open it. The following phrases he gives are of a particular type, pragmatically. He tried to open the door, and eventually succeeded is fine. So is He tried to open the door - and open the door he did or It was much harder than he expected or it wasn't an accident or and it suddenly gave way. The basic point that JL would agree with, is try to does not entail failed to!!! ... –  Araucaria Oct 31 at 1:24

You asked for a mnemonic. Here's one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_COP3cyN7zg

"Try To Remember" from The Fantasticks.

In case someone questions the rationale: the OP wanted "an infallible reminder". If one should happen to forget the distinction that "try to is used with attempts", then forgetfulness itself becomes the key to remembering that distinction. We turn our fallibility into infallibility, for what does one do when one has forgotten? One tries to remember. The show-tune melody and lyrics make the mnemonic even more memorable.

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That's actually quite good. Could you write the title of the song in your answer. Youtube has a habit of deleting their videos over time, and links become dead. Thanks. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 30 at 22:24
    
While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. –  choster Oct 31 at 3:55
    
Thank you for this musical mnemonic, I actually know the tune but not the version you posted. I will use it in the future. Again, many thanks. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 31 at 13:40
    
You're welcome. You might prefer the version by Julie Andrews, or Perry Como, or Harry Belafonte, or .... :-) –  TRomano Oct 31 at 13:48

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