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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 when 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

So if I ask: "Can you try opening this jar?." and "Can you try to open this jar?." Am I in effect saying the same thing? It appears to me the difference in meaning is slight.

If I change the verb try into the past:

"I tried to open the jar."

and

"I tried opening the jar."

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

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

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5  
"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
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

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
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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
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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
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