Why do we use the verb help in sentences such as the following to mean something like refrain from?

  • I try not to eat junk, but I can't help it.
  • I couldn't help laughing.
  • I can't help but admire her bravery.
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    As far as I can tell, it's simply one of the ascribed meanings. – Karl Knechtel Feb 26 '12 at 5:22
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    Ok, Karl, you can stop being helpful now – ivancho Feb 26 '12 at 6:27
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    @Karl. Thanks, I now understand ascribed meaning. What I find interesting about this expression is that it is only used in the negative. We don't say: I try to avoid eating junk and I can help it. – Shoe Feb 26 '12 at 6:30
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    @Pitarou, I am hoping someone can shed light on when and why the expression can't help came to mean refrain from, avoid, stop, prevent oneself, and as corollary why it is not used in the positive. – Shoe Feb 26 '12 at 7:27
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    I also ran a google search on "can help it" without "can't help it" and found some positive examples, though not too many. "Avoid Including Bulky JS Libraries If You Can Help It", for instance. Need to better filter out IT-related headlines like "X can help IT". – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Feb 26 '12 at 7:29

Two of the OED’s definitions of help are relevant. Definition 11a is:

To remedy, obviate, prevent, cause to be otherwise. (With can, cannot, or some equivalent.) In earlier use usually in passive ‘it cannot be helped’, later in active with personal subject ‘I cannot help it’ = I cannot do anything to remedy or prevent it.

Definition 11b is:

To prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than. (With can, cannot.)

It is true that in both senses help is often used with a negative word such as no, scarcely or hardly, but that is not always the case. For one thing, it can be used in a question, as in Trollope’s ‘How can I help it that I am not a man and able to work for my bread?’ It can also occur in an if clause following a negative, as it did in Hugh Walpole’s ‘I thought he should not offend the King if he could help it.’ In sense 11a, Pepys even used it without a negative at all: ‘One thing there is in his accounts that I fear may touch me; but I shall help it, I hope’

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  • Thanks. You and the above commenters have answered my question. – Shoe Feb 26 '12 at 7:33
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    Can help V-ing is a Negative Polarity Item, which can't occur outside the scope of a negative word or construction. If is one such, as are questions. Again, grammatical questions should not be researched in a dictionary; that's for words, not constructions. – John Lawler Feb 26 '12 at 17:53

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