Unable to help

From yesterday’s “Metropolitan Diary” column in the NYT, a letter from Bernard Brown (relevant bit in boldface):

I had just been prepped for a routine test at one of New York’s prestigious hospitals, and had been left alone for a few minutes. I could not help overhear an exchange between two young female doctors at the other end of the anteroom …

This is could not help + BSE, yet another version of an idiom that already comes in a number of versions, some of which have been the target of usage advice.

MWDEU has a nice summary entry on cannot but, cannot help, cannot help but, which also takes in variants with can’t, could not, and couldn’t in the first slot. The article begins:

A lot has been written about these phrases. To put as charitable a light on the matter as possible, most of what you may read is out of date. We have hundreds of citations for these phrases, and we can tell you two things for certain: these phrases all mean the same thing — “to be unable to do otherwise than” — and they are all standard. To the usual three we can add can but and cannot choose but, which also have the same meaning but are less frequently met with.

Preliminary note on the syntax of these idioms: cannot help standardly takes a PRP complement (as in “I could not help overhearing an exchange”), while the other four take a BSE complement (as in “I could not help but overhear an exchange”). Presumably, in “could not help overhear” the syntax of the other four variants (especially cannot help but) has been extended to cannot help, to give a sixth variant.

The extension is widespread: a search on {“could not help think”} gets a huge number of hits, like this one:

Once this feeling set in, it was very difficult for me to forget that James Franco was an actor and not the character he was playing. I could not help think of the technical aspects in the film: “Did they use a clay mold for his hand so it wouldn’t move?”, … (link)

Now, remarks on the other five: cannot but is “an old established idiom”; MWDEU has examples back to the late 17th century and notes that it was “a favorite of some of our old warhorses of usage — Henry Alford, Richard Grant White, Fitzedward Hall”. Despite that, it is one of the two variants to be subjected to significant usage criticism; the other is cannot help but, the most recent of the variants (it seems to have arisen in the late 19th century, possibly as a syntactic blend of cannot but and cannot help).

Like cannot but, cannot help is venerable; MWDEU has it back to the early 18th century (in Jonathan Swift’s “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Language”!).

Cannot choose but is even older; the OED has it from 1557, with a small flurry of attestations in 1798.

Finally, I have at the moment no clear evidence about the history of can but, though a few usage critics find it over-formal, even “pompous” (Theodore Bernstein). Notice that in actual practice can but and cannot but are semantically equivalent, despite the difference in polarity. Idioms are like that. (Think of couldn’t/could care less.)

Cannot help but + BSE continues to arouse a few usage critics, like Richard Hartwell Fiske (in The Dictionary of Disagreeable English), who thinks that cannot help + PRP “sounds better”. Bryan Garner maintains that cannot help + PRP is “a less awkward construction” than cannot help but + BSE, but concedes that the latter is becoming an accepted idiom (after over a hundred years!) and shouldn’t be stigmatized.

The critics seem not to have taken notice of cannot help + BSE — in effect, a syntactic blend of these two other idioms — though it seems to be catching on, at least in informal speech and writing.

3 Responses to “Unable to help”

  1. Low vowels « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Unable to help […]

  2. Greetings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] By arnold zwicky One more from the “Metropolitan Diary” in yesterday’s NYT: a letter from Susan […]

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    A note on can but: this pretty clearly has but ‘only’. OED2:

    By the omission of the negative accompanying the preceding verb …, but passes into the adverbial sense of: Nought but, no more than, only, merely.

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