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The regular English-language column in this week's Spectator (by one 'Dot Wordsworth') examines the opaque but not uncommon construction "I can't help but be reminded of the relationship...", which has been discussed at various times here, notably at this question.

I call it "opaque" because, as Dot points out, I can't help loving you means the same as I can't but love you, which are both the opposite of I can't love you. I can't help but love you would therefore be a double negative and express lack of affection.

As mentioned by several users in the linked question, usage trumps logic and nowadays "I can't help but..." means the same as "I can't help...", while "I can't but..." though it means the same, has an archaic feel. However, nobody would say this is an obvious way for a construction to evolve, and Dot proposes the (startling to me) thesis that it was invented by the author Thomas Hall Caine.

Hall Caine was an eccentric figure, who thought he looked like Shakespeare despite a bushy red beard, and sold millions of copies of what are now regarded as potboilers. The OED's first example of the construction is "she could not help but plague the lad" from The Manxman (1894), but the columnist has found an earlier example in The Bondsman (1890).

'Dot' concludes by asking "if anyone comes across prior examples. I can't but think they exist". I have had no luck as yet, but feel my ELU colleagues might well be successful.

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    Traits of American humour - Volume 3 - Page 240 1852. - The fire flew, and I couldn't help but swar a little. books.google.it/… - High Life in New York - Page 127 1854 - ...*so that I couldn't help but look through them at that plaguey*.. books.google.it/… – user067531 Jan 9 '18 at 23:17
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    Early usages of the expression “couldn’t help but” appear to date back to the late 18th century: books.google.it/… – user067531 Jan 9 '18 at 23:50
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    The surprising thing is that there is a standard construction in ancient Latin, which corresponds with this. ‘Quin’, followed with the subjunctive does the same ‘double negative’ role. So ‘facere non possum quin irascar’ would (when Latin was translated literally by school kids) be rendered as ‘I cannot do but that I get angry’. But it means ‘I can’t help but be angry. Other such phrases abound. ‘Nemo est quin sciat’ means ‘there is nobody but that knows’, an so on. I can’t prove it, but I wonder if it sneaked into English via Latin in Victorian schools. – Tuffy Jan 10 '18 at 0:17
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    @Tuffy the phrase cannot but is used multiple times in Pride and Prejudice (for example, A thorough, determined dislike of me--a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. in chapter 16) which was published ~30 years before Victoria was Queen :o) ... possibly it snuck into English via Jane Austen? – Will Crawford Jan 10 '18 at 1:06
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    The earlier expression, found in Shakespeare and before, was "I cannot choose but to," as in "I have no choice but to." In the early 19th c., "I can't but help..." was already becoming more popular. grammarphobia.com/blog/2016/08/cant-help-but.html – KarlG Jan 10 '18 at 1:11
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The earliest instance of "cannot help but"—in the modern idiomatic sense—that I've been able to find through Google Books searches is from "Dreams," an essay included in Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects by John Aubrey. Miscellanies was first published in 1696, but it is not clear how much earlier the pieces included in it were written. Aubrey died at the age of 72 in 1697. Here is the relevant text from his essay, discussing a famous dream that the Roman physician Galen had:

Gallen's three Dreams. The third more worthy of being called a Miracle, was, when being twice admonished in his Sleep to cut the Artery that lies between the Fore-Finger and the Thumb, and doing it accordingly, he was freed from a Daily Pain with which he was afflicted in that Part, where the Liver is join'd to the Midriff ; and this he has testified at the end of his Book of Venesection. 'Tis certainly a very great Example, when a Man so great as he was in the Medicinal Art, put so much confidence in a Dream as to try Experiments upon himself ; where be was to run the risque of his Life, in his own very Art. I cannot help but admire his Probity, in the next Place, that where he might have arrogated the Merit of the Invention to himself, and placed it wholly to the Account of the Subtilty and Penetration of his own Genius, he attributed it to God, to whom it was due. In this alone did the Man well deserve to purchase an Immortality to his Name and his Writings.

Also, from a letter written in 1722, reproduced in Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series: America & West Indies, 1722–1723 (1934) [combined snippets]:

I have frequently laid matters of the greatest importance to the welfare of this Colony before your Lordships and the Secretary of State but have never been honoured with any answers to them and it is very surprizing that tho' I named Mr. Beckford to your Lordships as the cheife instrument of all our divisions and animosities and that he has as well in former Governments as mine constantly opposed whatever has been recomended for the publick service, should meet with such countenance from home as not only to be continued in his post of Comptroller of the Customs but he gives out that he has had sent him copys of my letters which I wrote to your Lordships about him. And I cannot help but observing to your Lordships that of all the gentlemen I ever recomended to be of the Council not one has been put in and those whom your Lordships have thought fit to recommend since I left England live in remote parts of the countrey and at so great a distance that it is with the greatest difficulty imaginable (let the urgency be never so great) to get a quorum together to do business.

And from Ran. Darwall, "Polly Wright: A Birth-Day Rhapsody," in The Lady's Magazine; Or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex (June 1776):

VII.

And, as for any simple sonnet,

For her they've such a great regard,

That they're amaz'd–"O! fye upon it!

"She sure deserves a better bard."

VIII.

And so she does, in humble fashion,

I really cannot help but own :

For her, however, my amorous passion

In rhyme shall now again be shewn.

It thus appears that "cannot help but" has been in use in English in essentially the same idiomatic sense that it has today for more than 300 years.

  • By the way, the expression "can't help but" also appears in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in the course of a discussion between Cassy and Tom about God and sinfulness: "'But why does he put us where we can't help but sin?' said the woman." – Sven Yargs Jan 12 '18 at 6:01
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Re Tuffy's reply: "I cannot choose but" has the sense of "the only (that's the but sense) thing I can choose". However, that analysis doesn't appear to work with "help": OED gives an interesting slant on the phrase "there's no help for it" as "no way to avoid or remedy a situation". While "the only thing I can avoid is to love you" is counterintuitive, is it more plausible that "help" here takes the "remedy" sense: "the only thing I can remedy (for want of love) is to love you". Help's a Germanic word. In German, helfen is pretty much English help in all senses. But verhelfen is more the sense of getting something done by giving assistance - facilitating. If one turns to Dutch, however, its "help" is "helpen", but that language's verb "verhelpen" is much stronger: to put things right. Which brings us back to the OED's idea of remedy. Perhaps "help" in this expression harks back to that secondary meaning, so that it should be understood as "The only thing I can do to remedy my situation is to love you" ("help but" being understood as "help IT but", with an impersonal pronoun "it" standing for "things", "the situation."

  • Welcome to ELU. Can you back this up in any way? – Will Crawford Jan 10 '18 at 15:38
  • I looked in the OED for the relevant definition of "help" and it is: "To prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than. (With can, cannot.) Usually with vbl. n. (rarely inf.), or it = doing it." The 1894 example from The Manxman is listed under this definition, so it's definitely the right one. – Laurel Jan 10 '18 at 19:20

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