Source: p 249, Zizek's Ontology ..., by Adrian Johnston

●●Source: p 65, L'Odyssé d'Homère: tr. en français, Volume 2, translated by Dugas Montbel

● Bruce Fink helpfully compares the French ne explétif [hereafter abbreviated as NE] to certain employments of the English word but
(as in, for example, "I can 't help but think that... " or "I cannot deny but that . .. ")
Fink contends that the French ne and the English but are each means of expressing an attitude of ambivalence toward the meaningful content of the sentence uttered (an attitude coloring the position of the subject of enunciation) without, for all that, disrupting or repudiating ♦ the literal meaning of the sentence per se as the sense established in the form of an utterance.29 Philippe Van Haute claims that the occurrence of the NE makes for the difference between, in its absence, the "impersonal" phenomenon of a simple assertive sentence in which the subject of enunciation 's intention-to-signify coincides with (or collapses/fades into) the thus-established position of the subject of the utterance, and, in its presence, the "personal" phenomenon of indicating, through the ne, an affectively inflected distance between the speaker (i.e., enunciation) and the significance of what the speaker spoke (i.e., utterance).30 ♦ The signifier ne or but marks, within the uttered sentence, the enunciator's unease with what he or she uttered.

Although I didn't understand the long sentences surrounded by ♦ , I include the above should it help anyone. Negatives still trouble me, but I cancel the double negatives in Fink's comparisons:

1. I can[not] help but think that... " = 1.1. I think that
2. I cannot deny but that = 2.1. I deny that

Q1. In 1.1 and 2.1, there's nothing negative. So where can the French adverb « ne » possibly lie?

I exemplify a verb requiring the NE with redouter (which I arbitrarily chose):

●●Si vous tardez en vous armant contre ce rocher, je redoute que, s'élancant de nouveau, Scylla
n' engloutisse autant de vos compagnons qu'elle a de têtes.

My translation: 3. ...I dread that, soaring up again, Scylla swallows as many of your companions as she has heads.

Q2. In 3, I never used Fink's double negation? So what does he mean?

  • "I cannot help but think" means "I think that"; however "I cannot deny but that" means "I don't deny that". In both cases, the "but" does not change the meaning. (I think the idea is that the ne does not change the meaning in your sentence 3, although I'm not sure the parallel is accurate.) Feb 15 '15 at 21:24
  • 2
    And to reassure you on your English comprehension I don't understand the last sentences between the ♦'s, either. Feb 15 '15 at 21:31
  • Checking Google Ngrams, I am absolutely amazed to find that the "cannot help but ..." construction is relatively new to English grammar (20th century). Feb 15 '15 at 21:47
  • 1
    I cannot help but think has the same technical meaning as I think, but as Bruce Fink contends, cannot help but establishes a unique emotional posture toward the conclusion. I think as opposed to I am compelled to think (against my emotional inclination). books.google.com/…
    – ScotM
    Feb 15 '15 at 22:54
  • The French examples in the page you link to sound a bit artificial (as expected in such a document). There, using "ne" doesn't change the meaning, or add or remove any emphasis IMO. In fact, most people would say "Il est parti avant qu'on ait décidé" instead of "Il est parti avant que nous n'ayons décidé.", which sounds exactly like "[...] qu'on n'ait décidé" anyway. Where ne is particularly useful in French is to let you distinguish between "Je ne peux pas dormir." and "Je peux ne pas dormir.", but that's a different problem.
    – Bruno
    Mar 23 '15 at 20:15

Cannot but behaves as a set phrase in English:


  1. cannot but, have no alternative but to:

The double negative with but is used to convey an ambivalence toward the inescapable outcome, and adding the word help to form cannot help but, seems to multiply the emotional intensity of that ambiguity. In 1892, The Foundations of Rhetoric pp. 161-162 compared the expressions "Can But" and "Cannot But"

"Can but" brings before the mind only one possibility; "cannot but" suggests two opposite courses, but affirms that in the case in hand only one of these is possible...

"You cannot but realize that you are" means you cannot help realizing that you are, you cannot believe that you are not.

"You can but realize that you are", means you can only realize, you cannot do more than realize, that you are...

"He could not but speak" is equivalent to "He could not help but speak," Help...is tautological.

In 1846, the Horatii Tragedy uses the phrase cannot help but, in a dialogue to evoke the emotional compulsion of fear:

Horatia: What, art thou weeping?

Mysis: Yes, my lady.

Horatia: What ails the? What's amiss?

Mysis: Nay, I cannot help but weep, my lady.

Horatia: But tell me thy sorrow, good wench ; peradventure I may comfort thee.

Mysis: Why, to be plain with thee, sweet mistress ; I am weeping about Bubo...I have bethought me of so many risks, and perils, and dangers, and mischiefs, the which poor Bubo may run against, I cannot help but weep.

Again in 1846, The Christian expresses emotional ambivalence in a religious conflict:

I cannot think, or feel, or talk, or act on this principle at all. My thoughts, my feeling, my talk, my actions, go all on the opposite principle of liberty. I cannot help but feel that there are some things which deserve blame, and others which deserve praise. I cannot help blaming myself, if I do wrong, and I cannot help praising or approving myself, if I do right. And I cannot help feeling that there is a difference between right and wrong.

Beuachampe in 1856, uses the expression to capture an internal conflict with fate:

I can not help but tell it. An instinct, which I dare not disobey, commands me; and truly, when I think of the instinct which told me that you would come--made you known to me as the avenger from the first moment when I saw you--and has thus forced you, as it were, in my own despite, upon my fearful secret--I almost feel as if there is a divine, at least a fated compulsion...

Almost every use in written English was in the context of emotional ambivalence, conflict or compulsion:

In 1892, A Doctor of the Indiana State Medical Association expressed his ambivalence while confronting a prevailing medical opinion on the treatment of pelvic peritonitis:

I have seen so many of these cases operated upon, so many that had previously been tested with electricity and not made better, but made worse, that I can not help but believe that it is good doctrine, when you have a case of recurring attacks of pelvic peritonitis, "hands off" with your electric machine.

In 1987 hearings on the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a representative expresses emotional ambiguity toward the evidence presented by a witness:

I can not help but note that when you look at the rewards that might come from development on the North Slope in terms of total gas and oil that might be discovered on the North Slope or in ANWR, you use the lowest possible prediction. And when you talk about potential damage, you use the highest possible prediction.

Interpretation: I must note, but I can't believe I have to note, such an obvious bias. The same interpretive formula is applied to I cannot help but think:

I am compelled to think, but I cannot believe (or like that) I must think.

The expression I cannot deny but that, generates the same sense of emotional ambivalence toward the denial:

I cannot deny, but I cannot believe (or like that) I cannot deny.


Fink's thesis is that this use of but (and especially help but) behaves like ne explétif, implying a subtle emotional distance from an inescapable conclusion. When the OP eliminates both negatives of the double negative, that emotional ambivalence is incorrectly removed.

I cannot help but think, is similar to I think in meaning, but they are definitely not identical expressions.

I cannot deny but that is similar to I cannot deny in meaning, but they are definitely not identical expressions.



Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.