There have been questions on ELU about the pronunciation of can and can't in American English. This question is about the usage of the word, not simply its pronunciation.

Here are a couple of examples found on google:

If contraction 't (apostrophe-t) was simply missed occasionally, it could simply be excused as poor proof-reading. However, the omission seems to be more widespread in popular usage. The root word (e.g. can) still retains its original, positive meaning, so a sentence such as "I can do that" is now at risk of being ambiguous - can is then its own antonym.

My question: is there a semantic drift occurring with words such as can and could, turning them into contranyms?

  • 1
    AmE uses "Could care less" to mean what other English speakers would describe as "Couldn't care less" - odd - but that's the way it is. As for "Can help but revert ...", that sounds distinctly unusual indeed, but it could be coming out of the same semantic stable as "Could care less". – Cargill Dec 1 '15 at 3:07
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    @Cargill It's possible, though I've seen the negative can / etc used quite a few times. They are strangely hard to find intentionally - google searches tend to turn up the traditional usage of "can", hence the idiomatic forms in my examples. It's also possible that "could care less" was the 'patient zero', diffusing beyond AmE as well generalising to other expressions. – Lawrence Dec 1 '15 at 3:13
  • Not disagreeing - just saying I have seen "Could care less" for years, and got used to it,, but "Can help but revert ..." is quite new to me. If "can" is going to mean "can't" in the future, then ... well ... it will sound pretty odd. – Cargill Dec 1 '15 at 3:18
  • @Cargill Yes, quite! :) – Lawrence Dec 1 '15 at 3:31
  • Your first link isn't a very reliable source to hold as a standard, and it indeed looks like poor proof reading. "Can help but to revert" sounds my native speaker disapproval alarm, and I speak modern American English. – Matt Samuel Dec 1 '15 at 3:36

Can help (but) is a Negative Polarity Item,
and so was could care less until it caught negation by association, like (could) give a damn.

An NPI is a word (e.g, ever), phrase (in weeks/months/years), or grammatical oddity (would care to) that only occurs grammatically inside the scope of a negative word. There are a lot of negative triggers.

  • *She said she would care to have a gin fizz.
  • She said she would not care to have a gin fizz.
  • *She said she had tasted a gin fizz in years.
  • She said she hadn't tasted a gin fizz in years.
  • *She has ever been to Chicago.
  • She has not ever been to Chicago.

No, there's nothing sinister going on with can and could that isn't going on with all the other modals, too. This is what you should expect with a modal and a negative in the same sentence. Negation and Modality are plenty complicated individually, plus modals and negatives always interact, in unpredictable ways.

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  • +1 That's an interesting idea - that when the phrase as a whole is considered a negative construct, negating the polarity of the individual components doesn't change the polarity of the construct as a whole. Your second and third pairs of examples show this well, though the first pair do (not do not :) ) appear to me as opposites, particularly if the word would is stressed. I disagree with your statement, "This is what you should expect with a modal and a negative in the same sentence.", though I wish you used "you'd" instead of "you should" because then I'd have agreed with the NPI :) . – Lawrence Dec 1 '15 at 4:16

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