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I've seen this in an English Learning Facebook page that we can say:

I can't not go 
I can't not tell her
I couldn't not eat
I couldn't not look

Are they true? Is it formal or informal? What structure is this?

  • If you google the form 'cannot not go' you may find useful examples. – user66974 Jun 24 '14 at 11:15
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    They're pronounced with special stress and intonation, so that they don't get confused with double negatives that cancel each other out. What these do is bracket differently: [I can't [not tell her]] instead of [I ca[n't not] tell her], which is a normal cancellable double negative. The special bracketing takes [not tell her] as a predicate 'refrain from telling her', and negates that, to produce a meaning of 'not refrain from telling her'. Of course, the pronunciation doesn't come across in writing, so it's ambiguous and confusing, which is normal for English writing. – John Lawler Jun 24 '14 at 16:35
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The structure is fine but it's not quite as simple as just a double negative.

"I couldn't not look" doesn't mean "I could look", it means "I had to look". Likewise for the others.

Put into some context, "I can't not tell her" might be said in the following conversation.

A: Did you hear Mary's boyfriend was at a strip club?
B: No, does she know already?
A: No she doesn't, so don't tell her.
B: I can't not tell her, I'm her best friend.

Again, "I can't not tell her" means "I must tell her", not just "I can tell her if I want to".

  • @RegDwigнt Thanks for the edit, looks tidier but I'm not convinced this is a duplicate of the question you've linked to. I don't really see that the Paltrow based answers are suitable as an answer to this more straightforward question. The sentence structure is the same but the other one throws in the added complication of being impossible, someone who is not pregnant saying I must be pregnant. – Frank Jun 24 '14 at 11:26
  • This question is way too basic for this site and is better suited for ELL. However, rather than nuking it, I closed it as a duplicate as a courtesy to the OP. If he prefers it to be migrated instead, we can still do that. – RegDwigнt Jun 24 '14 at 11:32
  • @RegDwigнt Any guidance on what constitutes too basic, for future reference so I don't make the same mistake again? Something in Meta perhaps? You should nuke it; if it's too basic and has an answer (or a nuke free duplicate) that will just attract more questions of a similar type. – Frank Jun 24 '14 at 11:52

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