How can you (not) help but (not) __?

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Here's another example of the power of negation to confuse us –Jonathan Capehart, "Marco Rubio's powerful American story", WaPo 4/14/2015:

Rubio's up-from-nothing life story is inspiring. "I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege," he said. How can you not help but puff out your chest in pride for the promise of this nation?

This seems to be a blend of "How can you help but puff out your chest in pride?" and "How can you not puff out your chest in pride?".

Such expressions are fertile ground for misnegation: Given the combination of explicit or implicit negation with a question and an implicit scalar predicate (here the strength of the chest-puffing motivation), how can you not help but not throw in an extra negation or two?

The "How can you not help but __" frame is pretty common:

How can you not help but smile? This is the perfect time to express gratitude toward yourself and for all of your efforts with your practice, or anything else in life.

How can you not help but love this boy? Look at that smile.

How can you not help but smile at what is happening in Ottawa and Minnesota right now?

If you continually receive the blessings of the Lord, how can you not help but love Him, that gave you so much.

When you hear the names John Stockton and Karl Malone, how can you not help but think about the Utah Jazz?

How can you not help but feel empowered to JUST DO IT when this adorable toddler in her pink sweater full of hearts tells you that nothing is impossible?

And an extra negation at the other end of the idiom, "How can you help but not __", is also pretty common, for example in this transcript of a speech by Michelle Obama:

Let me tell you, so many of the young people who have these experiences, they walk away transformed.  How can you help but not be transformed with a new sense of purpose and hope?

Other examples of "How can you help but not __?":

Surely, Ryan believes, there were plenty of other steroid labs that went undetected. "How can you help but not wonder?" Ryan says. "If you listen to some of the chemists and folks that work on the medical side of this, there's a great concern that the basement chemists will continue to design steroids that are undetectable.

How can you help but not cheer for Kelly? There are so many reasons why the pop chanteuse makes us smile.

As you go through the graveyards and Oogie Boogie's giant lair, how can you help but not get into the Halloween Spirit.

How can you help but not feel rejected and jealous of the actor who was chosen?

And there are even a few related examples with two extra negatives:

How can you not help but think he's not a giant tool?

Generally his loyalty is with the robots-how can he not help but not "feel" something for his fellow robots-but the irony is that humans built these feelings within Astro Boy.

[h/t Mark Mandel]

 



7 Comments

  1. Mike said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 7:30 am

    A single negation makes me uncomfortable if I dwell on it a split second (quickly reading negations seems to allow me to comprehend them more easily); but I can very rarely make sense of double negations on a first read, though I know that they can be used skillfully for emphasis. I once encountered a sentence with five negations in it by a masterly British writer; I spent fifteen or twenty minutes trying to understand it, and I cannot remember whether I ever did.

  2. Jan Schreuder said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    For Mike:

    "He never yet no villainy ne said
    In all his life, unto no manner wight."

    Chaucer

  3. Simon Fodden said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    May I step to the side a bit here and ask about the "can't help but" usage? Am I right in thinking it's a redundancy, since "can't help x-ing" and "can't but x" are equivalent -— i.e. "help" and "but" do the same work?

    I'm not interested in making other people talk or write "properly"; it's just that I see "can't help but" everywhere and have lost my own sense of the matter.

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    @Simon Fodden: Yes, I ask myself the same. I was taught as a child that "I cannot help but do X" is a wrong usage (my father was quite happy to label usages as "wrong"), being a confusion between "I cannot help doing X" and "I cannot but do X."

    In that context, "How can you not help but puff out your chest?" could be argued to mean exactly what it says, with 3 negatives where the writer intended 1.

    You can get obsessed with such things. Having spent most of the week checking and proof-reading examples for an undergraduate course in mathematical analysis, I went to the theatre this evening and read in the programme, "There is never a point at which his plays are not being performed, or his songs being sung." It was all I could do to resist taking my pen and inserting a "not" before "being sung".

  5. mgh said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    I'm confused. Aren't these both correct:
    I can't help but wonder what he was thinking
    I can't help wondering what he was thinking

    [(myl) And so are these:

    How can I help but wonder what he was thinking?
    How can I help wondering what he was thinking?

    But not these, at least in varieties of English without negative concord:

    I can't not help but wonder what he was thinking.
    I can't not help wondering what he was thinking.
    How can I not help but wonder what he was thinking?
    How can I not help wondering what he was thinking?

    ]

  6. Pete said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 7:37 am

    You're all correct, because "can't help but X" is a blend of "can't help X-ing" and "can't but X", which I've always assumed are the two original expressions.

    So the Rubio quote is in fact a bend of three expressions:
    – "How can you but puff out your chest in pride?"
    – "How can you help puffing out your chest in pride?"
    – "How can you not puff out your chest in pride?"

  7. Todd said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    Here is a related phenomenon, from Entertainment Weekly on problems with the Fantastic Four relaunch:

    http://www.ew.com/article/2015/08/07/fantastic-four-josh-trank-tweet

    From there, Landis went on to address Fantastic Four directly: "Josh didn't get that chance, and his second major project, after one with total freedom, was one with intense oversight. … But I do think it's important to say that if you're not prepared going in to not FIGHT like hell, but WORK like hell, it's gonna get ugly."

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