What's the negative way of saying

"I can only finish a small portion of the jobs."

Is it

"I cannot finish most of the jobs?"

And I appreciate it if more "native" expressions are provided.


The reason I asked this is I don't know how to effectively express 1) I can do some jobs 2) But only a small portion in a single sentence. Jim commented

"I can't get it all done."

But how much? Most of them, half, or little? This doesn't give the subtle feeling of "I can do but only a little".


I thought this is quite common. The scenario is being asked

"Can you do these?"

while the requester asked me to mark all papers.

  • If you're trying to get a list, it might not be on topic here. Are you looking for a list, or the "best" phrase?
    – user10893
    Aug 11, 2012 at 21:31
  • A native speaker in an informal setting might say, "I can't get it all done."
    – Jim
    Aug 11, 2012 at 21:33
  • The sentence already has a quantifier (a small portion of), as well as a negative (only). That's enough for ambiguity. Why add another negative? And what makes you think there is some simple "negative way of saying" any sentence? Aug 11, 2012 at 21:51
  • @JohnLawler A non-native English speaker and learner as I would not be able to give you precise words to describe the need. By "negative" I meant using "cannot" in the sentence rather than "can". I believe you see what I meant. Aug 11, 2012 at 21:58
  • @simchona Not a long list. I'm just not sure if the second sentence is correct (for what I meant); and want to learn how native English speaking people would say it. Aug 11, 2012 at 22:01

4 Answers 4


It's hard to say for sure how I'd answer this request, because it depends on several factors. These include:

  1. Who is making the request, and what is my relationship to that person? Is this person is an authority (i.e., a boss, someone who can fire me, someone in a position to decide if I'll still be working at the school next semester)? A peer, who is asking me a favor? And how well do I get along with this individual?

  2. Is this part of my normal duties? Am I being paid to grade papers by the school? If so, perhaps I'd better have a good reason why I can't grade them all.

  3. How reasonable is this request? Is this something that could be done in an hour? Five or six hours? Or would it take more than ten? And how much time are they giving me? Do these need to be done tomorrow? Or sometime next week?

  4. How long have I been in this position? Have I already built up a strong reputation in the department, where they consider me a reliable, dependable worker? Or have I only been working there a few weeks, and first impressions are still being made?

  5. How many other people are available to get the job done? By saying no, am I putting someone else in a lurch? Or are there a pool of a dozen people or more who might also be able to take on the work?

In short, there is no one standard way I'd answer this request. There are too many permutations for me to list all the possible ways I might respond, but I'll give a few:

SCENARIO 1: I'm fairly new in the department, and I don't want to get started on the wrong foot. The amount of work is significant, and there is a not a lot of time available to do the work:

Instructor (pointing at a pile of papers): Can you grade these?
Me (speaking as a native speaker): Sorry, I'd really like to, but I don't think I can. At least, I wouldn't be able to grade all of them, but I'd probably be able to grade some of them, if that would help.

In that scenario, I might even try to explain why I'm too busy to fulfill the request, particularly if the reason was legitimate, and would help the other person better understand why I couldn't do it.

SCENARIO 2: I've worked in the department for awhile, and I'm pretty sure they think highly of me, and that won't change just because I'm unable to complete one assigned task. Moreover, the department has several people who do this grading, and they've specifically instructed us not to take on work if we don't have time to do a careful and thorough job:

Instructor (pointing at a pile of papers): Can you grade these?
Me (speaking as a native speaker): Sorry, no can do. I might be able to grade a third of them, though.

SCENARIO 3: There are a huge pile of term papers that need grading, and they need to be done by tomorrow. In other words, the request is completely unreasonable. Still, I like the person who is asking, so I want to help as much as I can. Moreover, the two of us have been on friendly terms for some time now:

Instructor (pointing at a pile of papers): Can you grade these?
Me (speaking as a native speaker): All of them? Are you crazy? I can grade three or four, though; let me see if I can find any other graders who can help us out.

All that said, I can't think of a scenario where I'd say:

"I can only finish a small portion of the jobs."

even though there's nothing ungrammatical about that sentence. It just doesn't sound like natural language in this situation: I'd probably say do, not finish; I'd probably say a few, not a small portion; I probably wouldn't add the prepostional phrase of the jobs; and I'd probably couch the language with some sort of an apologetic tone, so as not to sound too much like a robot:

"Sorry, I can only do a few of them."


Given a question like "Can you do these?", where you are being asked to mark all of a set of papers, a reply like "I can't mark them all" or "I can't mark them all in the time I have" is appropriate, if true. Most people will think of grading a set of papers as a single job, so to answer with either of "I can only finish a small portion of the jobs" or "I cannot finish most of the jobs" would be confusing. Regarding use of most, if you want to say you'll have time to grade just a few of the papers, say something like "I only have time to mark a third of those", or mention some other appropriate fraction.


The most diplomatic answer would be something along the lines of "I'm afraid I won't be able to get more than [however much] done by [whenever your interlocutor wants it], but if you can wait until [whenever suits you] I can finish them by then."

If you're looking for something more exquisitely 'native', "That pile? Hell, no!" and "No way!" (or even "No **ing way!") spring to mind.


To give a complete answer, you might say, "I can do some of them, but not all." You can change "some" to "most", "half", or another quantifier depending on what how much of the papers you wish to grade.

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