I Can’t Even

A follow-up to my posting “That goes without”, on an Amanda Hess piece in the NYT Magazine of 6/14, about the (largely) teenage use of “I can’t even” to convey being rendered speechless by strong emotion. Now to the letters section in the magazine for 6/28, which comes with two Tom Gauld cartoons illustrating reader comments.

One letter questioned Hess’s assumption that the I Can’t Even formula was used to conceal young people’s thoughts from adults — and so did I in my posting. A Gauld cartoon on the push and pull between parent and teenager:


Then a letter from reader Jim in Massachusetts:

I’m old, but it’s obvious what ‘‘I can’t even’’ means: an expression of high feeling so powerful that the expression itself cannot be completed.

It’s a respectable and familiar rhetorical device called aposiopesis, defined as ‘‘a sudden breaking off of a thought in the middle of a sentence, as if the speaker were unwilling or unable to continue.’’

This is an alternative to my suggestion that the formula is a truncation, used when the speaker thinks that it’s not necessary to continue the sentence, because hearers can supply a range of relevant continuations; the completions “go without saying”.

Then another Gauld cartoon, in which someone plays on the even in the formula:


One Response to “I Can’t Even”

  1. Karen Schaffer Says:

    I’ve only heard the phrase used as Jim describes, as a high emotion exclamation. But that is by my contemporaries, not teens.

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