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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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3 Answers 3

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.

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A native speaker might say something like "I can help, but think this is a difficult question"; but that's an entirely different kettle of fish. –  Marthaª Sep 6 '12 at 20:56
@Marthaª: They might, but I would expect them all to say something like "I can help, but I think this is a difficult question". –  Adam Robinson Sep 6 '12 at 21:07
Or, "I can help, but it would be too much trouble so I won't." –  Jay Sep 6 '12 at 21:11

Can help but Infinitive and can help Gerund are both Negative Polarity Items (NPIs).

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)

  • I can't help thinking he got the better of us in that deal.
  • I can't help but remember the smile on his face.

but they're terrible outside a negative environment (what a difference an -n't makes!)

  • *I can help thinking he got the better of us in that deal.
  • *I can help but remember the smile on his face.

    Summary: If Negation is involved, look for NPIs before doing anything else.

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This "negative polarity" business has quite a long reach! I'm assuming @Barrie's "You can but try" falls into the category specifically because it raises doubts over how likely it is that trying will lead to succeeding. –  FumbleFingers Sep 6 '12 at 20:18
That particular but is equivalent to only and is indeed negative. As are questions, comparative and superlative constructions, and "syntactic constructions (This is it, isn’t it? Not any big ones, he didn’t), variation (so didn’t I; ain’t got none), morphology (-n’t, -free, un-), (morpho)phonology (do/don’t), intonations (‘Riiight’), and lexemes sporting negation that is overt (never), incorporated (doubt, lack), calculated (few), entailed (prohibit), or presupposed (only)" –  John Lawler Sep 6 '12 at 21:25
Perhaps people are missing that can’t but is one of those true double-negatives that makes a positive. –  tchrist Sep 6 '12 at 21:49
I can't help but think the first "but" in this sentence has essentially that same "only" sense. Actually, the more I think about "I can but do X", and "I cannot but do X", the more it seems to me they can mean exactly the same thing. I do recognise that idiomatically, the can version can imply I can do no more than X, and the cannot version can imply I must do X, but it still seems pretty odd that in some contexts the negation of "can" doesn't necessarily affect the meaning. –  FumbleFingers Sep 6 '12 at 21:50
This reminds me of **Nobbut-Clefts**. –  John Lawler Sep 6 '12 at 22:22

"Help" here is not used as in to assist.

"I can't help it."

This means I can't stop/control myself, or I have no other choice.

Some examples:

I can't help but laugh at her misfortune.

When the music gets funky, I can't help but dance.

I can't help but wonder if he was just being nice to get something for himself.

I can't help it! It's involuntary.

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