grammatical word: tried

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I have noticed a common misunderstanding among my students with the word “try”. As most people know, this word means to attempt to do something. However, when we use it in the past tense, it can have two different meanings. If we follow the word “tried” with an infinitive (to + base form of a verb), it means that we failed to do something that we were attempting to do. However, if we follow it with a gerund (-ing form of a verb), it means that we successfully did the thing we were attempting but that the result was not what we wanted. For example:

It’s really hot in this room. I tried to open the window, but I couldn’t.

It’s really hot in this room. I tried opening the window, but it didn’t work.

In the first sentence, the person made an effort to open the window, but it didn’t open. In the second sentence, the person was able to open the window, but it didn’t cool the room down. Here are some more examples:

I tried to quit smoking last year, but it was too hard for me.

I tried to call you yesterday, but the line was busy.

We tried to get a reservation at the new Italian restaurant downtown, but we couldn’t. It must be very popular.

I have a headache. I tried taking this medicine, but I still have it.

I need someone to work for me on Friday. I tried asking Bill, but he said no.

I have a lot of ants in my house. I tried using this bug spray to kill them, but it didn’t work.

Some verbs can be followed by either the infinitive or the gerund forms of other verbs with no change in meaning. For example, this is the case with words like “like”, “love”, “don’t like” and “hate”. However, other verbs can only take one form or the other, but not both. This is the case with the verb “enjoy”. We can say, “I enjoy exercising.”, but we CANNOT say, “I enjoy to exercise.”

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2 Comments »

  1. natsuko Said:

    i just found your blog. very helpful!
    one question.

    i see the difference between tried to infinitive/gerund,
    but now i!m wondering how they are different below though.

    -I tried opening the window, but it didn’t work.
    -I opened the window, but it didn’t work.

    • Hi there.

      Good question. Basically the meaning of your two sentences is the same. However, if we say “I opened the window”, there is a choice as to what follows. You could say, “I opened the window, and it worked.” or “I opened the window, but it didn’t work.” But we don’t say, “I tried opening the window, and it worked”. By using “tried” + ing, the reader or listener knows that an unsuccessful result happened.

      I hope that helps.


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