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As far as I understand, both "attempt" and "try" describe active measures towards achieving a goal. Words like "aim", "seek" are listed as synonyms, but seem not to indicate active measures.

What is the difference between:

I am trying to fix the car

I tried to fix the car

and

I am attempting to fix the car (sounds unnatural)

I attempted to fix the car

Personally, I think that "attempt" indicates one shot quick look (attempted, but was too much effort) and "try" indicates prolonged efforts (done everything I could)

  • I see zero difference. "Attempt" is a little more formal, fancy sounding. So you can sometimes use it that way, to sound a little more pretentious, in some cases. Other than that they are identical. Actually "try" can sound more pathetic .. as in "oh, dear, I'll try my best but..." If someone at work challenges you "Can you do THIS?" .. if you answer "Look .. I'll try.." that's about as good as saying "....but it may not happen." – Fattie Jun 2 '15 at 8:26
  • Regarding your final sentence, most words have more than one meaning. "Attempt" can be used to label one specific attempt; so what. That's not relevant in a discussion between how "I'll attempt to do it" and "I'll try to do it" differ. – Fattie Jun 2 '15 at 8:27
  • 3
    Do or do not. There is no "try" [or "attempt"] ;) – Marv Mills Jun 2 '15 at 9:07
4

To my ear (product declaration: British-born wrinkly), your theory is right, there is something pessimistic about "attempting". There is no attempting, Yoda should have said, only the doing or not doing. When Eliot, perhaps echoing the Gita, wrote, "For us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business", to my ear that suggests a sustained moral endeavour.

I agree with you also that "I am attempting to fix the car" sounds a bit off, perhaps because, as above, it suggests that you don't think much of your chances.

Other NS may differ in their perception of the nuances, though.

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    They use "attempt" in the Olympics when talking about sports... particularly ones involving the word "vault"... pole vaulting, gymnastics vault of both the male and female varieties... also events like ski jumping. You could hardly say that these are "pessimistic" usages, simply really quick ones. All of these events are very short bursts of work. – Catija Jun 2 '15 at 8:23
  • That might be because "try" doesn't work as a noun – outside of rugby. Your point about the quick bursts works anyway. – David Pugh Jun 2 '15 at 8:28
  • HI David. You probably agree that "I'll try to do it ..." is deifnitely a weak formulation, and indeed often implies essentially "probably will not be able to." (Whereas "Ok, I will actually attempt it right now!" is more upbeat.) I see no difference, really. Both can be used in an upbeat or downbeat manner, in different ways. – Fattie Jun 2 '15 at 8:28
  • @JoeBlow. No, to me it's the other way round, "I'll try" is more upbeat than "I shall attempt it". This issue seems very subjective: de gustibus and all that. – David Pugh Jun 2 '15 at 8:42
  • This is the best answer. The two are synonyms, obviously. But any two synonyms also have different connotations. And I agree with David that attempt sometimes has the connotation of a hail-mary effort, i.e., one with somewhat less expectation of success than what the more neutral try would suggest. – Drew Jun 2 '15 at 15:18
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Any claimed difference between to try and to attempt based on degree of effort, likelihood of success, etc. is spurious. The main differences are...

1: try is about 20 times more common than attempt, as that linked chart shows.

2: try has a greater range of "extended" meanings - you can try/hear a court case, try/sample a delicacy, for example.

3: Where the context involves doing A in order to achieve B, the "possibility of failure" may apply to either A or B. Consider...

3a: I tried rebooting the computer
3b: I tried to reboot the computer
3c: I attempted rebooting the computer
3d: I attempted to reboot the computer

...where 3b and 3d both imply the speaker probably wasn't able to reboot. 3a would normally imply he was able to reboot (it just didn't have the desired effect of fixing the problem). Idiomatically, 3c is an unlikely utterance, and I wouldn't like to say which of the two possible meanings might apply.

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Try indicates motive in expectancy of a result. Attempt indicates motive without expectancy of a result. Also, if you're trying, then you are currently occupied as such. If you're attempting, then you may be planning because attempt is prefixed with a(t)-, so any place or time may be designated.

By using attempt in a sentence such as 'I attempted to fix the car', you disconcern with result, suggesting that you conceal a potential failure for any peculiar reason. Anyway, that is rather psychology than English.

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