Is "can’t help but" considered to be a confused mix of the expressions "can but" and "can’t help"? If not, what is the difference between "can help but" and "can’t help but"?
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I can’t help but think this is a difficult question means that I have no alternative to thinking that this is a difficult question. I can help but think this is a difficult question is not something a native speaker would say. The combination can but is used in sentences such as You can but try, encouraging the person addressed to attempt a task whose outcome is uncertain.
Can help but
That means that they can't occur grammatically outside the scope of some Negative trigger. So they're just fine in a Negative context (here with can't instead of can)
but they're terrible outside a negative environment (what a difference an -n't makes!)
"Help" here is not used as in to assist.
This means I can't stop/control myself, or I have no other choice.
This usage comes from a very old meaning of "but" in which it means, literally, "outside". Its original form is the Anglo-Saxon "be outan", which we can gloss as "by out", i.e. "outside". This use is still found in Scots where they might say "He's waiting but the house".
Anyway, there's your etymology lesson. As far as i know, this ancient prepositional "but" is the ancestor of all the many uses of "but" that are in English today, and it has as its not too remote ancestor the "but" of
which without sounding too weird , we could put equivalently as
It looks to me like a lot of the NPI uses of "but" come from this old prepositional meaning. You use this sort of but to say that nothing "outside" a particular class has interesting property X. "You can't but try" means you have no other option "outside" of trying.
Both have different meanings.
Meaning: I can't help, but I can refer you.
Meaning: I will help you, even if it is impossible to do.
Meaning: Your behavior compels me to think you are crazy.
No native speaker writes "I can help but .. " Because there should be a comma after help.
protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:17
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