"You can't help but not be worried"

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Here's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in discussion with Marvin Odum, Houston's chief recovery officer, about whether the Federal government will actually come through with the funds promised for disaster recovery after last summer's floods ("Houston's Recovery", Weekend Edition Sunday 12/10/2017). He describes returning from Washington without a clear idea of whether the promises will be honored:

Garcia-Navarro: You came back worried, though.
Odum: You can't help but not be worried.

There was a 2007 discussion of this construction on alt.english.usage, which led off this way:

I have a question about "can't help but not" phrases. I was talking about someone the other day, and I caught myself saying, "she's so nice that you can't help but not like her." I started wondering about the construction of how I said that as I didn't sound right.

Isn't this improper usage? Seems improper because of the double negative. Wouldn't the proper way to say this would be to simply state, "she's so nice that you can't help but like her"?

searched on google, and looked up this phrase, "cant help but not like" and noticed that quite a A LOT of people seem to use the "can't help but not like" phrase in the same context I did earlier today. I also noticed that some people tend to use the phrase in a negative way, such as, "It was such a lousy movie that you can't help but NOT like it."

It's clear that this is one of those cases where the combination of a couple of negation or two with a modal, a question, or a scalar predicate leaves people uncertain about which way the whole thing comes out.

I've suggested in the past that there are four (perhaps mutually reinforcing) possible reasons for such things:

  1. Our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators;
  2. The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
  3. Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
  4. Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

This one — "can't help but not" — strikes me as a good case for the negative concord explanation, perhaps with a bit of idiom-formation thrown in.

For some examples of the question version of the same thing, see "How can you (not) help but (not) __?", 8/9/2015.


  1. ===Dan said,

    December 10, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

    Adding to the negation mess is the fact that "but" is a negative word too (as in "except"). I don't know how to parse the standard expression other than to accept it as an idiom. You could also say "I can't help liking her," yet inserting "but" (and changing the verb) doesn't change the meaning.

    [(myl) The troublesome (to some people) case is "I can't help but not like her".

    It's a good point that "help but" is an idiomatic construction, making "help but not" just a small additional step.]

  2. Tom davidson said,

    December 10, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

    Anyone game to translate the sentence into Chinese?

  3. PeterL said,

    December 10, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

    To me, "You can't help but be worried" sounds right and "… but not be worried" sounds strange, at least in my dialect of Englsh (for confirmation: 4m ghits vs .3m ghits)

    For a similar construct in Japanese, there are two ways saying "only", with either positive "exists" ("aru"/"arimuasu") or negative "does not exist" ("nai"/"arimasen"):
    – "hyaku-en dake aru": there is only 100 yen ("100 yen only exists")
    – "hyaku-en shika nai": there isn't but 100 yen ("100 yen but not-exists")
    I think I've heard both used equally, so our poor monkey brains seem to handle this amount of complexity anyway. (And I have vague recollections of hearing phrases similar to "there's naught but a quid in my pocket" in England …)

    ( for more examples of dake/shika, together with some notes on nuances: http://maggiesensei.com/2016/06/08/how-to-use-%E3%81%97%E3%81%8B-%E3%81%A0%E3%81%91-shika-dake/ )

  4. Orin Hargraves said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    I remember reading somewhere, long ago, that the popular idiomatic construction

    I can't help but X

    where X is an infinitive is actually a conflation of two more easily parsable constructions, namely,

    I can't help Xing (where Xing is a gerund) and
    I can't but X (where X is, again, an infinitive)

    This makes sense to me, because the two above are sensibly parsable, but today's most common idiomatic form is not. And adding another "not" to it makes it even less sensible. But I wonder if the idiomatic forms arise from a kind of hyper-correction, where speakers are trying to include every possible variant in one expression in the hope that one of them is the right one.

  5. DWalker07 said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    "I can't but x" seems weird, and I personally don't think it's "easily parsable".

  6. Jonathan said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 10:51 am

    It sounds to me like two simpler double-negation sentences

    1) You can't help but like her.
    2) You can't not like her.

    have been poorly combined, like two heads on a single "You can't.." body.

  7. Orin Hargraves said,

    December 11, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

    DWalker07, I think it sounds weird simply because it's now pretty much archaic, but there are thousands of hits on "cannot but X" in Early English Books Online. If you want to see a graphic representation of its declining use, try, e.g., "cannot but admire" in Google Ngrams. As for parsability: probably not easily machine parsable, but obviously native-speaker parsable or people wouldn't have been saying it for hundreds of years.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 12, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

    Orin Hargreaves: Not speaking for DWalker07, but to me "parse" doesn't mean "understand"; it means "figure out the syntax".

    I suppose "I cannot but X" can be read, maybe even parsed, as "I cannot do anything but X." People must have pointed out that it means roughly the same thing as "I can but X."

  9. Orin Hargraves said,

    December 13, 2017 @ 8:44 am

    Mr. Friedman, you have just parsed it in the same way I was parsing it, as an elliptical expression.

    I don't understand your last sentence (what people? When or where?) but to me, the contexts in which you would say "I cannot but X" and "I can but X"' are different, and citations largely bear this out. Again looking at EEBO, "cannot but X" is more than five times more frequent than "can but X". Typical complements for "cannot but" are admire/wonder/acknowledge/think.
    Typical complements for "can but" are get/guess/kill/grieve. "Admire" and "wonder" also show up with "can". It seems to me that "can but" has been supplanted in modern speech by "can only". But I can only guess.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

    Previous commenters are right that "can't but" is already suspect, in my opinions those two words don't belong in the same clause, and constitute an overnegation.

    The unimpeachable way to say it, and that I would certainly use, is, "You can't help worrying".

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  11. ===Dan said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

    Andrew Usher: But as long as you say "help" it's still an idiom, with room for ambiguity if each word is taken literally. Literally, it could mean you can't worry any better, you can't learn to cope with the feeling of worry, or you can't find a way to worry less.

    For nearly perfect clarity, you could instead say "you have to be worried," or "you can't avoid being worried," or maybe even "you can't not worry."

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