Friday, February 16, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Tie The Cannot

cannot but

“I cannot but be gratified by the assurance,”
Thomas Jefferson once wrote. He might have said
I can but be gratified by the assurance
and meant the same thing! How is this possible? The but of cannot but indicates an exception, as it does in sentences such as
No one but Jefferson could have written such a document.
But the but of can but means “only,” as it does in the sentence
We had but a single bullet left.
So the two phrases cannot but and can but mean essentially the same thing: “cannot do otherwise than.” Both cannot but and can but are standard expressions that have been in use for hundreds of years.

cannot help.

The construction cannot help is used with a present participle to roughly the same effect as cannot but in a sentence such as
We cannot help admiring his courage.
This construction usually bears the implication that a person is unable to affect an outcome normally under his or her control. Thus if you say
We could not help laughing at such a remark,
you imply that you could not suppress your laughter.

cannot help but. The construction cannot help but probably arose as a blend of cannot help and cannot but; it has the meaning of the first and the syntax of the second:
We cannot help but admire his courage.
The construction has sometimes been criticized as a redundancy, but it has been around for more than a century and appears in the writing of many distinguished authors.

cannot seem. The expression cannot (or can’t) seem to has occasionally been criticized as illogical, and so it is.
Brian can’t seem to get angry
does not mean “Brian is incapable of appearing to get angry,” as its syntax would seem to require; rather, it means “Brian appears to be unable to get angry.” But the idiom serves a useful purpose, since the syntax of English does not allow us to say
Brian seems to cannot get angry.
We use similar “illogical” constructions all the time, such as
I don’t think it will rain
instead of
I think it will not rain.
In this case, being illogical is just speaking plain English.

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