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I am wondering why would someone say "I can't seem to" instead of simply saying "I can't". Is there any specific difference between the two? Is the former usage informal? Is it correct to say that the following two phrases are equivalent?

I can't seem to do something.
It seems that I can't do something.

Some sample sentences:

I can’t seem to subscribe to a Google Reader ‘starred items’ feed that I’ve created.
I can't seem to stop arguing with my partner.
I can't seem to make friends.
I can't seem to transfer my videos directly from one playlist to another.
Client: I can’t seem to find the search box, can you please make sure it’s working? Me: The search box is in the top left hand corner of every page. Client: Is that on your left or my left?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

The use of seem to is usually a hedge, or a softener. The examples above are suggesting that the person feels they should be able to do something but cannot find the right way to do it successfully. The same person wouldn't say, "I can't seem to speak Korean" because they have no reasonable expectation that they should be able to speak Korean.

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"I can't seem to" expresses the idea of repeatedly trying without success. You don't want to flatly admit that you can't as long as you keep trying, but you're closer to failure so it seems you can't, while you still hope to succeed. It's often used as a commentary on ongoing attempts:

I just can't seem to get this jar open!

The expression is somewhat informal.

"It seems that I can't" expresses a bit more finality. It's as if you've seen all the attempts, and while you may succeed in some future attempt, you have say at this point that it's unlikely.

Why the two expressions have these slightly different meanings is something I can't seem to figure out.

Edit:

  • struck out comments on positive "seem to".
  • I realize I have defined "can't seem to" in terms of "seems you can't"! Oh well.
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Why did you strike the comments out? Are they wrong? Is there a positive version can seem to after all? –  Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 3 '12 at 12:24
    
@ArmenTsirunyan: Yes, I realized that there is. It's often used when talking about faintly hearing/seeing or otherwise sensing something: "I can seem to hear a dog barking." I'm still thinking about this and how it differs from the negative version. –  Paul Richter Feb 3 '12 at 12:33
    
@ArmenTsirunyan No, there is not. When using a positive version, Paul's dog barking example would be phrased as "I believe I hear a dog barking", which expresses doubt that you're hearing it correctly. –  Izkata Feb 3 '12 at 18:56
    
@Iskata: No, I would not phrase it as "I believe I hear a dog barking.", I would phrase it as "I can seem to hear a dog barking." And so would all these people. –  Paul Richter Feb 4 '12 at 1:19
1  
@Julia: I mostly agree, but a few of them are valid. For example, one hit is "I really love this song, but the only place I can seem to find it is Limewire"; there, the word "only" is what makes it possible. (In technical terms, "can seem to" is a negative polarity item: It doesn't necessarily require "not", but it does require some sort of negative-like sense.) –  ruakh Feb 4 '12 at 3:12

I’ve often wondered about this myself, Meysam. ‘To be unable to seem’ is a strange state to be in. Of course, what speakers who use this construction (and I am of their number) are saying is ‘It seems that I can’t . . .’ That’s what would be used in formal writing. For example, we’d expect an economist writing in a serious publication to say ‘It seems that the government is unable to control inflation.’ We wouldn’t expect ‘The government can’t seem to control inflation.’

So, yes, I think you’ve hit on the answer. ‘I can’t seem . . .’ is informal and, I suspect, widely used. How, when and why it came about would make an interesting little study for anyone with the time to pursue it.

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1  
You also have "he doesn't seem to", meaning "it seems that he doesn't". So why isn't "he won't seem to" allowed? (Googling, it looks like some people do use it. But it sounds really wrong to me.) –  Peter Shor Jan 31 at 13:29

The distinction is important, particularly in psychotherapy...

"I can't" is final and definitive, as has been suggested by several answers. In other words, "I cannot and never will be able to..."

"I can't seem to" is alternatively expressed as "I can't, yet," or "I can't, at the moment." In other words, it allows for the possibility that a given thing can be achieved, which "I can't" doesn't allow.

This distinction becomes clearer if I illustrate it with a specific example... "I can't shake this depression." If one says this repeatedly to oneself, one programmes oneself to believe that it is true, and people who are suffering from depression are encouraged to add "yet" on the end of the statement. Admitting the very possibility that the thing can be achieved is often sufficient to cause a person to make it true in a person's mind.

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The "seem to" implies that you have made attempts but failed.

"Can't seem to X" also suggests that you would like to succeed at X.

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In the English Language there are times when you say something that means exactly what the words mean, and then other times when what you say actually means something else entirely. This latter approach is called being "sarcastic" (sarcasm) and it seems to be more prevalent on the East Coast of the US although this vernacular of sarcasm is very common in all major cities and communities who have a specific common or daily routine. It can be subtle or it can be brash, which can also be a way for men in particular to bond. Other times people use it to enhance their experience or acquire information or to allow the other person to become aware of something for their benefit. They would like to manipulate a situation by managing your behavior, give you some info or awareness (cognizance). Knowing who is saying this to whom and the situation makes a big difference.

I can't seem to remove the lid of this pickle jar.

Said by a 70 year old man means "All my life I've been the one who did this for others, I was the strong one and now, I'm surprised, maybe even ashamed, (or I would like you to witness) that I can no longer do it." It's asking for help while maintaining pride. "I used to be strong and today I am asking for help" in the case of a 70 or 80 y/o male, if he could have opened it, he would have, and so he is probably asking for your help with no ulterior motive (unless you're 4 and they want you to feel important).

Honey, I can't seem to get the lid off of this pickle Jar...

Said by a Mother to a young son means, "I'd like you to feel grown-up by showing that you are stronger than me; that you can take care of the people around you." (She raised four speaker has a motive for the other person to complete the task.

"I can't seem to read this label" means there's something here I want you to read for yourself and I'm watching your reaction.

Said by a colleague, "I can't seem to [accomplish task]" means: "I want to see if he can do this." It's a test. This is a classic con move too — a grift, a scam. You could be getting "hustled".

Said by a young girl to a young boy, "I can't seem to get the lid off of this box" means, I want you to open this box because there is something inside that I want you to see, I want you to know, I want to reveal, I want to see your reaction. Again, you could be getting hustled or she's giving you a chance to be bold.

Basically "I can't seem to [whatever]" means that the speaker is justifying an unexpected request, explaining why a situation which would normally not exist, does exist. It implies that the speaker expects the listener to be surprised by the statement. It may seem complicated until you look at the opposite. Imagine a 29 year old body builder turning to his grandmother and saying, "Nonna, I can't seem to open this bottle of Whey Protein, could you open it for me?"

And Nonna giggles and says, "you're so cute."

Compare it to another way. The body builder wouldn't say, "Hey Nonna, I can't open this Peanut butter jar! Why do you always close it so tightly?!" The body builder would go hungry before asking Nonna to open the jar. UNLESS He was trying to get some of her Percoset for his sore back...

I think you get the idea.

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Thank you very much for the thorough answer! –  Meysam Dec 17 '13 at 8:19

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