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The construct "I can't seem to X" is widely used and considered normal, as far as I know. However, looking at the meanings of the verb "to seem", I can't find any that would fit the use in this phrase.

Has "to seem" ever meant something else? Is this phrase a contraction of a longer phrase?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Well, structurally it should be “It seems that I can’t X”. In all likelihood “I can’t seem to X” is just a shorthand for that, even though it’s technically weird.

This may be an example of verb raising. Other examples of this include:

  • I want you to do X (instead of I want that you do X): semantically, you is the subject of the X, but syntactically it is the direct object of want.

  • Bill is certain to win (instead of It is certain that Bill will win): semantically, Bill is the subject of win, but syntactically that of be.

  • Bill is tough for Carol to convince (instead of It is tough for Carol to convince Bill): semantically, Bill is the direct object of convince, but syntactically the subject of be.

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I think you mean "seem" is an example of a raising verb. It always was a verb, but the way you put it implies that somehow OP's construction has elevated it to that status. I think all it means is that seem is unusual in that its subject is X, rather than "I", in such constructions (as opposed to the more common subject-verb-object, it's object-verb-subject). But I don't see anything structurally odd, nor any need to postulate a longer form for which it's "shorthand". It's just the way a "raising verb" works. –  FumbleFingers Aug 10 '11 at 16:09
    
I don’t see how “it may be an example of verb raising” implies that it wasn’t a verb. It only implies that it was an example of <technical term>. The meaning of the technical term as defined on Wikipedia doesn’t imply it either :) –  Timwi Apr 21 '12 at 12:28
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You're right. It was a while ago when I wrote that - I think I mistakenly assumed there was only the noun form a raising verb, but fairly obviously the usage itself is more naturally termed verb raising. I'll leave the (hereby retracted) comment as testimony to my ignorance and fallibility, and add my belated upvote. –  FumbleFingers Apr 21 '12 at 13:48
    
Haha, why, thank you :) –  Timwi Apr 21 '12 at 23:18

The construct is a bit odd, but the meaning of "seem" is the same. "Seem" refers to perception (how things appear to the speaker). "This room seems cold"/"You seem tired"/ etc.

"I can't seem to..." means "I perceive that I am unable to..." - there's no change of meaning, although "It seems that I cannot..." may be a clearer way of expressing the sentiment.

The actual etymology of "can't seem to" is difficult to trace but this Ngram shows that it seems to have first occurred around 200 years ago and has since become far more popular in usage than "seem unable to":

Ngram of "can't seem to" versus "seem unable to"

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When I see it used, it is usually in the context of a person having trouble with performing some task, such as "I can't seem to get this pot clean". This would mean that the person is having difficulty cleaning a pot (probably unusually dirty), and though they have not given up yet, they might stop trying soon.

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To seem to is often used as an alternative to to appear to.

So conversely, can't seem to can be used to mean doesn't appear to:

Cjmuk can't seem to answer any question correctly.

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Really? In my opinion "He seems to X." usually means "It looks like he's Xing." and not "He appears to be able to X." –  Joachim Sauer Aug 10 '11 at 14:23
    
I've removed the 'to be able to' because although it fits my example, the perception or appearance element is the most important. –  CJM Aug 10 '11 at 14:29

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