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I guess ‘if I can help it’ is a kind of ‘if possible’. It seems help means to prevent or avoid.

By the way, how much are the speakers keen not to do something in the following sentences? I can’t figure out why never (not in any circumstances) and if I can help it are compatible.

  1. (Harry Potter 3 [US Version]: p.226)[Bold font is mine]

    I never wear those socks if I can help it ….

  2. (from Google search)[Bold font is mine]

    And stuff on the list I will never EVER eat if I can help it

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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The phrase "if I can help it" can be generally thought of as equivalent with "if possible", but there are some important distinctions. "If I can help it" is ultimately less forceful, meaning that the person is less dedicated to avoiding something.

For instance, a true vegetarian would never say, "I never eat meat if I can help it." The latter implies that there are situations in which the person feels obliged to eat meat (when Mom's cooking, when visiting a foreign country, etc.). A strict vegetarian, however, would deny such a situation exists (in everyday life, at least - the desert island question is another story).

The use of "if I can help it" shows us that the speaker believes that his/her influence over a given situation is limited. Someone willing to accept that is someone who is less than fully bound to their belief or desire. There are those who hold to something so strongly that they believe, barring perhaps threat of death, that they can always "help it".

In short, the user of the phrase "if I can help it" has a decided opinion but is not an ideologue.

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The word ‘limited’ gave me a flash of understanding. Thanks! –  user7493 Sep 22 '11 at 6:31

"If I can help it" softens the outright rejection, and turns it into a strong preference. It isn't as strong as saying "I will never."

The person saying this strongly doesn't want to do it, but if it becomes necessary, she will do it.

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I think you have answered your own question, Totoro. ‘If I can help it’ means ‘if it is in my power to influence the course of events’. There is no incompatibility with ‘never’.

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