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I am getting confused at the usage of the phrase "couldn't help myself."

For example, let's say I played soccer in the evening. What should I say?

  1. I couldn't help myself from not playing soccer.
  2. I couldn't help myself from playing soccer.

I'm getting confused with two negatives in the same sentence.

Which one is correct usage?

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Please support the proposed site targeted specifically at English language learners. –  RegDwigнt Jul 1 '12 at 15:02
    
@RegDwightΒВB Sure would do that, but till the time can my question remain here as well?? or should I migrate it completely? –  Kartik Anand Jul 1 '12 at 15:03

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The idiomatic form "I couldn't help myself [from] doing something" is usually used in contexts where the thing you did was of very short duration (you found you'd actually done it before you could think about the situation and refrain from doing it).

In practice what this means is that "I couldn't help myself from..." is normally followed by an "involuntary/instinctive" reaction - having some particular thought, laughing, sneezing, etc.

Playing football doesn't really fit such contexts for me, so it sounds slightly stilted. For more "premeditated" actions like that, I would say "I couldn't resist [doing something]".

Also, as pointed out elsewhere, since "I couldn't help myself" implies a "spontaneous" reaction, it's very unlikely you'd use it in the context of not doing something.

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So I couldn't stop myself from laughing at you is correct, right? –  Kartik Anand Jul 1 '12 at 14:47
    
@Kartik Anand: Yes, but help also works with laughing, much better than with, say, playing soccer, or going to work, which are more "premeditated" activities. –  FumbleFingers Jul 1 '12 at 14:53
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The from in the OP's Q sounded jarring to me and you have indicated that in your answer too. Is the "from" really necessary? –  Bravo Jul 1 '12 at 15:00
    
@FumbleFingers But if I just did something, for eg text someone, then I can use it right "I couldn't help myself from text you", I mean to say something which was done just right now –  Kartik Anand Jul 1 '12 at 15:02
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@Shyam: It may depend on the exact context, but yes - I'm not overly keen on "from" in this construction. Not that I'd say that's because it's "redundant" - we use lots of superfluous words all the time. I just don't like to much verbiage after "couldn't help myself". It's a slightly quirky turn of phrase that works better at the end of an utterance. "I burst out laughing - I just couldn't help myself". –  FumbleFingers Jul 1 '12 at 21:27

Neither is correct. I couldn't help myself is used as an excuse or a reason, so for your soccer example it would be:

"I played soccer in the evening because I couldn't help myself"

Even that is a bit odd, as I couldn't help myself is usually used to explain why we did do something, rather than why we didn't. A better phrase for this would be I couldn't stop myself.

"I couldn't stop myself from playing soccer."

or

"I played soccer in the evening because I couldn't stop myself"

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But then what about the phrase "i couldn't help myself from laughing at you" –  Kartik Anand Jul 1 '12 at 14:35
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I would use "I couldn't stop myself" for that too. Or "I couldn't help laughing at you". –  Roaring Fish Jul 1 '12 at 14:41
    
Ok I guess I was confusing your latter statement with the one I've mentioned in the question. Thank you. You cleared a lot of doubts +1 –  Kartik Anand Jul 1 '12 at 14:42

The idiom can/could help Verb-ing is a Negative Polarity Item, which means it can only occur with a negative, but the negation is not part of the idiom.

The construction itself requires the verb phrase can help (or could help in the past), followed by a Gerund (-ing) clause as its object complement. Only those verbs can occur -- no other modals but can or could, and no other verb but help.

  • He couldn't/I can't help noticing the crane.
  • *He/I may not help noticing the crane.
  • *He/I won't help noticing the crane.
  • *He couldn't/I can't assist noticing the crane.

That's the idiomatic construction. It can optionally take a reflexive object

  • He couldn't/I can't help himself/myself.

But normally this only occurs when the action that is being discussed is already part of the context, taken for granted, as in the answer to a question:

  • Q: Why did you give him the finger? ~ A: (Because) I couldn't help myself.

So the reflexive usually takes the place of the object gerund complement. If you want to include the complement, then you don't want the reflexive, normally. It's only there to add emphasis, and the idiom still means 'control oneself', whether the reflexive pronoun's there or not. And if it is there, it gets in the way; as you noticed.

So, instead of keeping the unnecessary reflexive and then horking the gerund clause in under some preposition -- which only adds syllables and complicates the parsing -- I'd just drop it all and say, simply,

  • I couldn't help playing soccer.

instead of either (1) or (2) above.

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Setting out the whole action with 'couldn't help...' seems rather clumsy to me. I think it works best with 'it':

'I'm sorry I lost my temper but I was so frazzled I couldn't help it.'

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I couldn't help myself would be followed by an affirmative sentence.

However, as pointed out by other answers, your example does not really work because you usually can't help yourself doing something spontaneous, whereas playing football is a an activity.

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