What are the ways of expressing the lack of ability to refrain from doing something? The only one I've found is help + ...ing. For example:

She can't help singing along when she hears this tune.

Obviously She can't not sing is incorrect, and She is not able not to sing sounds clumsy.

Q1: Are there other ways to express the same idea?

Q2: Does the following sentence sound natural? If not, how would you rephrase it?

John can't help spoiling whatever he lays his hands on. (= It's an inherent quality of John to spoil everything (possibly involuntarily) that he touches)

P.S. Couldn't figure out how to tag this question properly. Feel free to retag and remove this line.

  • 6
    I would say she can't resist singing
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 14:15
  • 5
    "can't not-" is not incorrect. If you "can not-" that means you can avoid. if you can't avoid then you can't not. Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:09
  • 2
    None of the devices will bring about the same familiar sense of "can't help (but)". Sometimes, usage and idiom can take us where grammatical variations cannot.
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:13
  • 2
    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 "can't not" is not suitable in writing, esp. formal writing.
    – Kris
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:14
  • @Kris: I'd say that depends on the writing. Certainly as it gets more formal you should avoid certain constructions. But it's certainly logically and grammatically correct on its own. Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:27

6 Answers 6


You could just add the word but (and drop the -ing):

She can't help but sing along when she hears this tune.

Other common forms:

She can't resist singing along.

She can't resist the urge / compulsion to sing along.

In fact, She can't help not sing along. is acceptable in all but the most formal writing, but only use it when you wish to emphasise the point. E.g.:

A: Are you sure she wants to sing along?

B: She can't help not sing along!

  • 2
    You can even go farther and drop "help." Reading with and without the implied semantics: "She can't [do anything at all] but [to] sing along." "She can't help [herself] but [to] sing along."
    – Phil N.
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 15:51

What you're talking about sounds like a compulsion.

compulsion noun the act of compelling; constraint; coercion.

Where something that is compelling has a "powerful and irresistible effect".

So you would say

She is compelled to sing along when she hears this tune.


John is compelled to spoil everything he lays his hands on.

If one feels compelled to do something then one is not acting voluntarily.

  • Or the variants 'She sings compulsively' or 'John compulsively spoils everything he lays his hands on'. Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 12:44

Although Matt has the right answer with Compulsion, in informal speech, it is acceptable to say "she can't NOT sing". It is important to emphasise the "not" to clarify.

I would not use this in written work because it is too easy to misread.


Among others, you can say:

She can't stop singing when she hears that tune.

Although it would seem to mean that the tune only prevents her from ceasing to sing, it is used in practice to mean that she always sings whenever she hears the tune.


Or "She can't keep from singing along."


'She was helpless but to sing' is quite concise.

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