The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s with “I can’t with”?

Q: I’m writing about an expression I’ve just started noticing: the use of “I can’t with” to mean “I can’t deal with” something. I won’t ask if this is a thing (another useful and seemingly recent usage), since it clearly is, but how long has it been one?

A: You’re right. A lot of people are using the expression “I can’t with” in the sense of “I can’t deal with” someone or something. 

Here are a few recent examples from Google searches: “I can’t with this show!” … “I can’t with this cat” … “I can’t with my stupid family sometimes” … “I can’t with these people on this site.”

So, yes, it’s a thing, and if saving a word is useful, then perhaps it’s a useful thing. And as you suggest, it’s a recent usage, though perhaps not as recent as you may think.

In Susane Colasanti’s young-adult novel Waiting for You (2009), for example, the narrator complains about “the weirdo spaced-out people” on the subway, and says, “I can’t with them.”

And in “Here and There,” a short story in David Foster Wallace’s collection Girl With Curious Hair (1996), the narrator says: “All the time I thought of her constantly—but she says ‘My feelings have changed, what can I do, I can’t with Bruce anymore.’ ”

Although it’s been around for a while, it’s hard to pin down exactly when this usage showed up. People routinely drop verbs after “can’t,” complicating database searches for “I can’t with.”

When “can” or “can’t” is used as an auxiliary (that is, a helping verb), the main verb is often dropped when the auxiliary is repeated. Here’s an example: “I can deal with your family, but I can’t with mine.”

This is standard English. But in the usage you’ve asked about, the main verb never appears. The auxiliary does all the work.

You won’t find this sense of “I can’t with” in standard references, but it’s definitely out there. And if enough people use it, we may be seeing it in dictionaries someday.

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