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Sunday, October 06, 2013

I Can't Help But Think versus I Can't Help Thinking

(Life Hacks)
no copyright infringement intended

I found in Q's Legacy a funny and witty discussion on the rights and wrongs of I can't help by think. It goes like this: the author (Helene Hanff), by then a teenager, was a student at a business school (where girls were taught office skills, preparing them for secretarial jobs). She corrected once the teacher who had dictated a sentence starting with I cannot help but think. Helene observed that this was a wrong construction, as it was using a double negation. One could say correctly I cannot but think, or I cannot help thinking, definitely not I cannot help but think.

Well, grammatically Helene was hundred percent correct. But, if we consider the way the language evolves, it's a bit more complicated, as the rule of grammar is not the only argument that counts. I can't help but think might prove grammatically erroneous (double negation), while it has been imposed by language usage and so it has now its valid place among correct English expressions.

I found on a web site devoted to English Language Usage (a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts - hopefully I can be considered serious, as well as enthusiast, so this site is also for me) that it is kind of silly to take something that people say all the time and declare that it's ungrammatical. And it goes on: I don't know of anyone who would hear the sentence I can't help but think that he's a criminal, and then wonder whether I think he's a criminal just because of the double negative between cannot and but.

By the way, I found such an argument also on a discussion forum devoted to the Romanian language, opposing partisans of correct grammar and partisans of language liberty. I will come to that later.

Kind of silly? Absolutely not, I'd say, persons trying to keep to correct grammar are not silly at all, though usual language sometimes contradicts them. I had the privilege to know a person who was speaking a superb English and did not hesitate to correct people (always doing it tactfully and with grace).

 As for I cannot but think, it is perfectly correct, while definitely old-fashioned.

I can't help thinking is by all means correct, and it can be used interchangeably with I can't help but think. If you want to find subtle differences of meaning between these two constructions, here is what the same web site says:

  • I cannot help but think is primarily used to mean I am forced to that conclusion though I'd rather not believe it (or I am forced to that experience though I'd rather not have it)
  • I cannot help thinking can mean also I'm always thinking at that, though I'd rather not do it.
And of course, except when we try to be formal, use of can't instead of cannot is natural.

(Helene Hanff)



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