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I understand that both these sentences:

  • Not even I can help them now.
  • Even I can't help them now.

essentially mean the same thing. But are they really interchangeable? Can you use either in any context, situation, etc. Can you think of any reason or subtlety that would make you prefer one over the other? Is one more formal than the other?

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Larry Horn showed how even and only work about 40 years ago. – John Lawler Dec 27 '13 at 20:42

Thanks Susan :) I'll try harder this time...

One more point I'd like to make on this (as I find it interesting).

If we remove the contraction in example 2, we get:

"Even I can not help them now."

and, as we recall from example 1:

"Not even I can help them now."

...meaning that whatever is going on here is merely about the placement of 'not', as can be seen in the examples.

In fact, the placement is just alternating between the subject "I" and the predicate "can help them now" containing, of course, the verb "help".

Having recently watched Noam Chomsky's 'Is the man who is tall happy' (jump to the end @ 83m 05s) I think we can see something of the same thing can be applied here, namely the moving of 'not' in the sentence to place emphasis on the subject (I) instead of the verb (help).

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+1 for an excellent answer. And, I agree with you. :-) – medica Dec 28 '13 at 5:53

Both phrases suggest that the speaker is normally considered powerful or capable - able to help, in your example - and if they can't do it, probably no one can.

Not even I, to me, puts more more emphasis on the I, so if you want to emphasise the speaker's position of power, use that. If you'd rather weight the emphasis on the help, use even I, but it's a subtle difference: they are interchangeable in meaning, as you said.

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There’s not much difference. The first, possibly, seems to emphasise their helplessness, while the second seems to emphasise the inability of the speaker to help them.


Whatever the difference, corpus evidence shows an overwhelming preference for even I can’t. It is more frequent than not even I can in the COCA by a factor of 4 to 1, in the GloWbE by a factor of 5.6 to 1 and in WebCorp by a factor of 16 to 1. Not even I can doesn’t feature at all in the BNC, but there are 5 records for even I can’t.

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Interesting. I'd have said the opposite. Not (even) refers to I, emphasizing the person, whereas, in the second, (can not) refers to help, emphasizing the lack of help. Am I reading this incorrectly? – medica Dec 27 '13 at 21:41
It's the fact that I is the second word that suggests to me that it is being emphasised. – Barrie England Dec 27 '13 at 21:54
Then how does the first sentence read any differently? – medica Dec 27 '13 at 23:59

Example one makes use of CAN (possible future tense), while example two goes straight for CAN'T (strict past tense). Therein lies the subtly of emphasis. Consider this:

Not even I could help laughing at their jokes. (POSSIBLE FUTURE TENSE)

Even I couldn't help laughing at their jokes. (STRICTLY PAST TENSE)

The first definitely has a stronger emphasis, because its 'scope' can cover future occurrences, while the second only covers the past. Formality would, therefore, depend on the emphasis intended through the use of tense.

But that's only how it reads to me perhaps? :)

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i, and welcome to EL&U. Thanks for your input. :-) We like answers to be fact based, not solely opinion based, and as such, love to see links to sources which support your answer. – medica Dec 28 '13 at 1:30

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