Q: It bothers me to hear actors or see writers (who should know better) say things like “I couldn’t help but cry over that.” I thought “help” should be followed by a gerund. I can’t help wondering where those “professionals” learned English. If I’m wrong, would you be so kind as to straighten me out?
A: We used to regard “can’t help but” as a casual usage, not appropriate for formal occasions. But on closer examination, we can’t help but ask why we saw anything wrong with it at all.
The truth is that “cannot [or can’t] help but” has had a long life in literary and scholarly English as well as in common usage.
It’s a firmly established idiom, and we can’t see any reason to restrict a usage that’s at least 200 years old and is still found in every variety of educated writing.
Yet since the late 19th century, many language commentators have condemned the usage in a sentence like “I can’t help but ask.”
The correct phrases, or so the story goes, are “I can’t help asking” and two equivalent old-fashioned expressions—“I can but ask” and “I cannot but ask.” In those last two idioms, “can but” means “can only,” and “cannot but” means “cannot do otherwise than.”
Apparently nobody was bothered by the fact that “can but” and “cannot but”—complete opposites—were accepted as idioms with identical meanings. Probably they sounded normal to 19th-century ears because they’d been in use steadily since the mid-1500s.
The “cannot help but” version was a relative newcomer; it did not become common until the early 1800s. Where did it come from?
We suspect that “cannot help but” emerged as a variant of an earlier and very popular idiom, “cannot choose but,” which had been in written use since the 1540s.
In fact, “cannot choose but” was once used in exactly the same way that “can’t help but” is used today.
So let’s start by looking into the history of “cannot choose but.”
Within its entries for the verb “choose” and the conjunction “but,” the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “cannot choose but” spanning three centuries—the 1540s to the 1880s.
As the OED explains, an obsolete meaning of the verb phrase “cannot chose,” which dates from the 1300s, was “have no alternative, cannot do otherwise, cannot help.”
“But” was added to the construction in the mid-1500s to yield “cannot choose but,” a usage that the dictionary says is now archaic.
“I cannot choose but speak,” according to Oxford, means “I cannot help speaking.”
However, the construction “cannot help” plus a gerund, as in “cannot help speaking,” wasn’t common until the early 1700s, so a contemporary equivalent would be “cannot do otherwise than speak.”
Here are a three early examples from the OED:
“Suche … crueltee … as could not choose afterwarde but redound to his … confusion.” (From Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus, 1542.)
“He cannot chose but he must fall downe flat to the grounde.” (From Sir Thomas North’s 1557 translation of Antonio de Guevara’s The Diall of Princes.)
“He cannot choose but breake.” (From Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1600.)
By Elizabethan times, the usage had become extremely common. It was popular enough to be used in a comic play performed before Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 27, 1599.
Here are the lines:
“Whether is it more torment to loue a Lady and neuer enioy her, or alwaies to enioy a Lady, whome you cannot choose but hate?” (From The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, by Thomas Dekker.)
From the early 1600s to the early 1900s, “cannot choose but” was ubiquitous in all kinds of writing, according to searches of Early English Books Online and other databases. It was used in ordinary English as well as in works by prominent dramatists, novelists, and poets.
But by the latter half of the 19th century, “cannot choose but” had fallen out of favor in ordinary, everyday English, though it survived well into the 20th century as a literary or poetic usage.
Meanwhile, as “cannot choose but” fell out use in everyday English, “cannot help but” took its place.
In searches of various databases, the earliest definite example of “cannot help but” that we’ve found is from 1809.
(Three earlier findings—from 1646, 1650, and 1776—are too ambiguous to count. The first two, “The hands of men cannot help but hinder this Work” and “Nature and art … cannot help but hinder one another,” could be interpreted in two different ways. The third, “They cannot help but feel the responsibilities,” is from a letter written from France dated 1776, but it’s unclear whether it was originally written in English or French.)
The first clear example is from an anonymous letter to the editor dated Oct. 23, 1809, published in an English newspaper, the Chester Courant:
“When I reflect on the local advantages this city possesses, and look at the flourishing towns of Liverpool and Manchester … I cannot help but fix upon the shackles of the select junta as the cause that this ancient city is less prosperous.”
The expression quickly gained ground in the 1820s and ’30s. These lines by an anonymous poet appeared in the Oriental Herald, published in London, February 1825:
“In truth, she cannot help but think / That bolder hearts than hers would pause.”
This comes from another British source, an 1829 issue of the Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Manchester chapter: “Sympathy is an impulse which we cannot help but experience for one another, it is a feeling that is interwoven in our very nature.”
The earliest American example we’ve found is from a poem by Henry Mason, delivered before the Franklin Debating Society in Boston in January 1830:
“Blame not the heart that cannot help but feel / Its pulses quicken at the soft appeal.” (The poem was published by the society in March 1830.)
Americans seem to have liked the construction. Here’s an example from Pelayo (1838), an adventure tale by the Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms: “We cannot help but weep when we survey it.”
Yet another American example is this one from the January 1840 issue of the New Genesee Farmer, published in Rochester, NY:
“The immense number and beauty of the articles there exhibited, are truly surprising, and cannot help but excite a spirit of improvement in the mind of every farmer, who views them.”
By the 1840s, “can’t help but” had become firmly entrenched in both common and literary British and American usage.
Here, for instance, is a cluster of sightings from a book published in London in 1841: “they cannot help but be uncharitable” … “he cannot help but see” … “we cannot help but love it.” (From Christianity Triumphant, attributed to Joseph Barker.)
And this flurry of examples is from sermons preached during a Christian convention in Chicago in 1883 by the evangelist D. L. Moody: “God cannot help but trust” … “we cannot help but blame” … “I cannot help but think” … “we cannot help but remember” … “you cannot help but love” … “you cannot help but preach” … “he cannot help but work” … and (five times) “I cannot help but believe.” We might have missed a couple.
Even in the most formal academic writing, authors have used “can’t help but” over the years as if it were irreproachable English. Today it’s found in scholarly writing of all kinds, in fiction, in journalism, and in ordinary, everyday English, both written and spoken.
Examples are so plentiful that it seems superfluous to cite any. But take a look at this one, from Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012), by Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell:
“Moreover, in so packaging the past through our choice of periodization points and rubrics, we cannot help but draw deep lines of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and difference.”
And this one, from The African Stakes of the Congo War (2002), by John F. Clark:
“As ordinary observers of human frailties, cruelties, and heroism, we cannot help but be fascinated by Congo and its travails; as moral beings, we cannot help but be gravely concerned with the unspeakable human suffering that has resulted….”
The point here is not that scholarly writing is the norm. The point is that “can’t help but” is considered respectable even in the most formal (we might even say stuffiest) writing.
So what do the critics of “can’t help but” find wrong with it? Some have objected without giving a reason, but others have complained on these grounds:
(1) “help” is unnecessary, since we already have “cannot but”;
(2) “cannot + help + but” has too many negative elements, since “help” is used in the sense of “prevent” or “avoid.”
(3) “cannot help but” is the result of confusing “cannot but” with “cannot help” plus a gerund. (As we’ve explained, we think it developed otherwise—as a variant of “cannot choose but.”)
As far as we know, the earliest critic was Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory. In The Foundations of Rhetoric (1892), Hill objected for reason #1:
“ ‘He could not but speak’ is equivalet to ‘He could not help speaking.’ Help in ‘He could not help but speak’ is tautological.”
Another critic was an English professor at Columbia University, George Philip Krapp, who wrote this in A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927):
“The construction I can not help but think, believe, etc., is crude and unidiomatic English for I can not help thinking, believing, etc.” No explanation was offered. (It should be noted that Krapp also promoted the spelling “Shakspere.”)
Various other commentators have chimed in over the years, like Wilson Follett in his Modern American Usage (1966), who called the usage “grammarless” for reason #3 above.
The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler, has no mention of “help but.” However, the revised second edition (1965), edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, condemns it for reason #3.
The two of us, former editors at the New York Times, remember “help but” as one of the paper’s no-nos. Here’s The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (revised ed., 2013), under an entry for the verb “help”:
“Use the construction help wondering, as in He cannot help wondering. Not He cannot help but wonder.”
We even promoted this view ourselves in the past (but no longer). Pat’s book Woe Is (3rd ed.), last updated in 2010, has this advice:
“In formal writing, avoid using help but, as in: Huck can’t help but look silly in those pants. Unless you’re speaking or writing casually, drop the but and use the ing form: Huck can’t help looking silly in those pants.”
[UPDATE, Feb. 2, 2019: The fourth edition of Woe Is I, published in February 2019, treats “can’t help but” as standard idiomatic English.]
On reflection, we wonder whether the Times’s prohibition prejudiced us against a usage that has nothing wrong with it. Yes, even in formal English.
The fact is that the feeling against “help but” was never unanimous.
In 1954 the grammarian Otto Jespersen commented on “cannot help but” and seemed to have no reservations about it:
“A frequent combination,” he wrote, “is cannot choose but with a bare infinitive.” And he added: “In the same sense, we have cannot help but with infinitive,” a usage that he said “is not confined to U.S., but is also found in British writers.”
He went on to quote some 20th-century British novelists who have used the phrase.
Theodore Bernstein, writing about “can’t help but” in The Careful Writer (1965), argued against grammarians who “contend that it is ‘crude and unidiomatic English.’ ” He called it “usual and acceptable.”
So did Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957): “Grammatically, the construction is as irreproachable as I cannot choose but think.”
Today, the more thoughtful usage guides have no problem with “can’t help but.”
Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage regards “can’t help but” as standard English (“logic cannot measure idioms,” it says), and so does The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Both guides say the only consideration as to formality is whether you use the phrase with “cannot” or “can’t.”
Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rates the idiom as “fully accepted” and says it “should no longer be stigmatized on either side of the Atlantic.”
The Oxford English Dictionary has little to say about the “help but” construction one way or another.
In fact, the editors use it themselves. In explaining the use of “have” to mean “must,” the OED says that in statements like “I have to say, you have to admit, it has to be said, etc.,” the meaning is “I cannot help but say, etc.”
The OED’s entry for “help” includes a section on the use of the verb with “can” or “cannot” to mean “to prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than.” Two of the later examples are of the “help but” variety:
“She could not help but plague the lad.” (From Hall Caine’s novel Manxman, 1894.)
“If clairvoyants are to be attached to police stations they can hardly help but become officials.” (From the Manchester Guardian Weekly, 1928.)
Those examples are cited without remark—that is, with no hint that “help but” is anything less than acceptable English.