(I posted this on English learner's group, but no one gave an answer. I hope this is a more appropriate group to post this question.)

Is the following sentence grammatically right to write in literature?

How could I not but close my eyes?

As "I could not but close my eyes" is a valid sentence, I felt like this one should also be valid. But I am confused whether 'could not but' can be used like that in interrogative sentences.

  • 1
    Sounds valid to me. "could not but" is an idiom, and somewhat anachronistic, but the usage should be fine for all but very formal usage. – Hot Licks Nov 23 '19 at 19:53
  • You will find this in dictionaries. Longman, for instance, has: << somebody cannot but do something [formal] used to say that someone has to do something or cannot stop themselves from doing it I could not but admire her. >> In a question (/ exclamatory sentence), 'How could he not but (ie How could he do other than) admire her?(/.)' Please check in future. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 23 '19 at 20:01
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it lacks basic research. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 23 '19 at 20:05
  • “I could not but do” is equivalent to “I could not avoid doing”. Do you really want to say “How could i not avoid closing my eyes”? – Anton Sherwood Nov 26 '19 at 2:40
  • Apparently, He could not but agree has always been far more common than the non-negated form He could but agree. – FumbleFingers Dec 10 '19 at 17:52

Yes, your construction in a question sentence is correct. The extract from Language Log suggests the following construction with the similar expression “can’t help but”:

The "How can you not help but __" frame is pretty common:

How can you not help but smile? This is the perfect time to express gratitude toward yourself and for all of your efforts with your practice, or anything else in life.

How can you not help but love this boy? Look at that smile.

How can you not help but smile at what is happening in Ottawa and Minnesota right now?

If you continually receive the blessings of the Lord, how can you not help but love Him, that gave you so much.

When you hear the names John Stockton and Karl Malone, how can you not help but think about the Utah Jazz?

How can you not help but feel empowered to JUST DO IT when this adorable toddler in her pink sweater full of hearts tells you that nothing is impossible?

  • I agree with Language Log that this structure, however common examples may be, is a product of confusion. “You cannot help but X” means “You cannot avoid Xing” = “You must X”. The question should logically be “How can you help…” – Anton Sherwood Nov 26 '19 at 2:36

It's fine phrasing because it's concise. Concise is usually better.

  • Hello, JMR. OP is asking about grammaticality, not style choice. This would make a fair 'comment'; we've all had to break the 50-point barrier. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 25 '19 at 16:29
  • When you say, a question "lacks basic research," by "research," do you mean citations? I believe grammar and usage are logic-based, so I might answer with logic instead of a citation. Is that OK? Not that I abjure sources. I'm a Fowler's 2nd Ed. fan myself. – JMR Nov 25 '19 at 18:23
  • Two comments on previous questions: << "Hi! What we're really looking for (on this or any other Stack Exchange site) is a supported answer: one that you can support with authoritative references (in this case an encyclopedia, dictionary, or some other such document). Edit your question and put in your support [quote, link and attribution]; then we'll be able to vote up your answer!" – Matt Gutting >> // << "A good answer is ... – Edwin Ashworth Nov 25 '19 at 19:17
  • comprehensive and contains evidence showing why it is correct. Links to external resources are encouraged. Answers which consist of virtually nothing but an unsupported statement or a citation are not useful and may be subject to deletion – even correct answers. For help writing a good answer, see 'How to Answer' [at the Help Center].' – MετάEd >> – Edwin Ashworth Nov 25 '19 at 19:17

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