Mind your language

The phrase that is almost universally misused

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

Writing about Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge in the Sunday Times, India Knight wrote: ‘I can’t help but be reminded of the relationship between Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sarah, Duchess of York.’ Reporting on the Ashes for the Guardian, Geoff Lemon wrote: ‘I still can’t help but think that England are going to completely implode within the first hour.’ Reviewing A Christmas Carol in the Times, Dominic Maxwell wrote: ‘You can’t help but grin as a new Scrooge springs to life.’

To me this seems wrong. When a little string of syntactic instructions becomes opaque it can be almost universally misused. You may say I can’t love you or the opposite: I can’t help loving you. I can’t but love you means the same as I can’t help loving you. So I can’t help but love you should mean the same as I can’t help not loving you.

The choice should be between I can’t help loving you, which is idiomatic, and I can’t but love you, which sounds a bit old-fashioned.

The man blamed for intro-ducing can’t help but into the English language was Hall Caine in his novel The Manxman, published in 1894. Thomas Hall Caine was a rather preposterous man, who became the first to sell a million copies of a novel. He thought he looked a little like Shakespeare. When he was 29 a 13-year-old girl came to live with him. Although 13 was the age of consent at the time, this was unusual. She bore their first son when she was 15.

Anyway, the example of our phrase that is quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘she could not help but plague the lad’, but there are six other examples in The Manxman. It is easy to find them today because it is possible to make a word-search on an electronic text. So I thought it might be worth searching Hall Caine’s earlier novel The Bondman, from 1890. Lo and behold, I found ‘she could not help but ask herself’.

Perhaps Hall Caine or others used the construction even earlier. I’d be interested to hear if anyone comes across prior examples.

I can’t but think they exist.

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