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What's the difference between 'I try to make cakes' and 'I'm trying to make cakes'? 

When I was asked this question I have to admit I had to think about it a little, but be truthful there is very little difference between the two grammar structures as regards meaning. You could use 'try' in either form and we would understand what you mean.

Anyway, let's have an example of the above, but putting them into context to help understand the structures.

If you are trying to do something, you are making an attempt to do something, usually something that is new or you have little experience of doing something. It isn't something that you regularly do, or perhaps you have some experience, or you are familiar with what you are doing, but what you are doing is not leading to the result you want, or the result is not what you expected. Some examples:

Fred: What are you doing?
Julie: I'm trying to make a cake.
Fred: And how is the job going?
Julie: Well, it's more difficult than I thought, but I think it will taste good when it's finished.

  • He's trying to open the door, but it's stuck.

  • Will you all be quiet! I'm trying to do my homework!

  • Are you trying to fix the TV? I think I would like to see an engineer do the job as I don't think you know what to do!

Now if you try to do something, this means that you make an attempt at some thought or action. It may produce a good result or not - you are not sure, or you are hopeful, that the attempt will work.

Here are some examples that contrast and explain the two structures:

  • I tried to call Julie but her phone was engaged. (I made an attempt, an effort, to call her but I was unsuccessful)

  • I tried calling Julie but her phone was engaged. (I thought that using the phone would be a good way to contact her)

  • Roger tries to teach English grammar to his students. (Roger makes an attempt to teach his students English grammar)

  • Roger is trying to teach English grammar to his students. (Roger is teaching his students English grammar, with the intention that he will be successful at this)

  • Do you try to speak English at all? (Are you making any attempt or effort to speak English?)

  • Are you trying to speak English at all? (Are you speaking English at any point in time in order to be successfully understood?)

  • Will you try to fix the TV? (Please, make some attempt or effort to repair the TV)

  • Are you trying to fix the TV? (Is fixing the TV something that you are doing now, or are about to do?)

  • I'm trying to do my homework so be quiet! (I'm attempting to do my homework now in difficult conditions - that is, there is too much noise)

  • I try to do my homework in quiet places. (This is a general thing I do, which may or may not be now)

  • They try their best, but really they're just not good enough for the job. (I am generally commenting on the fact that the workers are giving 100 per cent to their duties, but it isn't good enough)

  • They're trying their best, but really they're just not good enough for the job. (I am observing now that the workers are giving 100 per cent to their duties, but it isn't good enough)

Let's put those last two examples into a wider context (and example).

Fred: Do-you-speak-English?

Shop assistant: Co? Nie rozumiem.

(Fred walks out the shop.)

Fred: That shop assistant doesn't understand any English.

Brian: Did you try to speak any Polish?

Fred: No I didn't.

Brian: Why not?

Fred: I don't know any Polish!

Brian: Come on, I know some Polish. Let me try.

(Brian goes into the shop.)

Brian: Czy-pan-mowi-po-angiel-sku?

Shop assistant: Nie.

Brian: Czy-pan-ma-  er... klep?

Shop assistant: Tak!

Brian walks out of the shop carrying a bag of bread.

Fred: Did you try to speak Polish?

Brian: Of course I did! I told you, I know some Polish.

Fred: Okay, so did you speak Polish in the shop? I'm sure I heard some English. Come on, were you trying to speak English in the shop? (were you experimenting using English with the shop assistant?)

Brian: No, I was trying to speak Polish. I was trying my best, and the great news is I was successful. I got our bread!

It's no good. She doesn't speak any English

, like trying to ride a bicycle.something is to sample a new thought or action.

Have you spoken to Rachel? No I tried calling her but the line was busy.
Have you spoken to Rachel? No I tried to call her but the line was busy.

In both cases Jay wanted to speak to Rachel. ‘I tried calling’ means he thought phoning might be the way to do it. I tried to call’ means he made an effort – made an attempt to speak to her.
So the difference is very subtle – very small. ‘Try doing’ is about getting results, achieving a successful outcome. Try to do’ is about making an effort.

I’m trying to change this lightbulb but I can’t reach.

We often use ‘try to do’ when we think something is hard.

We’re trying to do this jigsaw, but it’s very difficult.

What’s a frog’s favourite drink?
Jay, I’m busy.
Croak-a-Cola. Did you know cows have four stomachs?
Jay, I’m trying to work.

So we use ‘try to’ when an action iteself is hard. When an action is easy but we don’t know if it will achieve the result we want, we use ‘try doing’.

What do you think?
It’s a bit tasteless.
Try adding some salt.

Adding salt is easy, so the issue here is will salt make it better. Try doing’ is about experimenting to find something that works.

The television’s not working. Try plugging it in. Oh.

We often use ‘trying doing’ when there’s a problem and we’re suggesting a possible solution.

I want to finish my coffee. It’s hot.
Try putting some ice in it.
Good idea.

I do wish you’d try going out with some of the other boys as well as Geoff.
Why? Mother I like Geoff a lot.
I know dear. I like him too. But after all, there are other boys in the world.

So ‘try to do’ – make an effort. ‘Try doing’ – experiment. You can see both forms in this sentence here. Learning to touch type is hard. You have to make an effort. Perhaps sticky notes will help, or perhaps not. They’re an experiment. One last example.

What are you doing?
I’m trying to get a paper ball into Kathy’s trash can.
Oh well done!
Can I try?
OK. Here we go.
Try rolling it into a smaller ball.

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