“Can’t Help” Construction

Although help is one of the most common English verbs, learners sometimes have difficulty using it in certain constructions. Let’s learn them and make no mistakes!

I CAN’T HELP IT!

If you can’t help something, you can’t stop yourself doing it:

  • Watching the funny animals video, I couldn’t help laughing.
  • When I found out that John had become an addict, I couldn’t help crying.
  • I shouldn’t have said it but I couldn’t help myself. (= I know I had to keep my mouth shut, but I wasn’t able to do it.)
  • I couldn’t help thinking he needed my help. (= I had good reason for thinking he needed my help.)
  • I can’t help feeling there is something wrong with her. (= I feel there is something wrong with her.)

If you say I can’t help feeling instead of I feel or I think, you express your opinion in a more indirect way: 1) I can’t help feeling that this may be a trap. 2) I couldn’t help feeling he was playing with us. This is an example of vague language.

I COULDN’T HELP IT IF…

Use (sb.) couldn’t help it if to say that someone can’t be blamed for something:

  • I am a very emotional person, and I couldn’t help it if my emotions took over.
  • He suffers from amnesia, and so he can’t help it if he forgets things.
  • She is a celebrity, and she cannot help it if paparazzi follow or even chase her.
  • I can’t help it if people lie and cheat and do bad things.
  • I gave you the directions. I can’t help it if you moved the wrong way.

Related: “Conditionals

IT CAN’T BE HELPED

If there is no way something can be prevented from happening, it can’t be helped:

  • The company is going to declare itself bankrupt. I’m afraid it can’t be helped.
  • Once Titanic hit the iceberg, it was doomed to sink. it couldn’t be helped.
  • I really hate those words “it can’t be helped”.
  • Stop thinking about it, it can’t be helped.
  • If you think climate change can’t be helped, you’re wrong. We need to take action right now.

NOT IF I CAN HELP IT

We use the phrase to say that someone is trying to avoid something they don’t like doing:

  • They never attend family events if they can help it.
  • We shouldn’t make any important decisions now, if we can help it
  • It’s so hot here that no one goes outside during the day if they can help it.
  • Are you going to watch the school play? – Not if I can help it.
  • Are you going to stay very long? – Not if I can help it.

Note that this construction is usually used with a negative verb form.

pexels-photo-1564506

When I see the dog, I can’t help smiling.

CAN’T HELP BUT

I can’t help doing something = I can’t help but do something:

  • I can’t help but smile when I see the dog in the picture.
  • I can’t help but look at you. You are so beautiful.
  • You know, I can’t help but see the irony in all of this.
  • I can’t help but care about what other people think. How can I stop worrying about it?
  • I can’t help but keep this love a secret and bury it deeply in my heart. What else can I do if he doesn’t love me?

CAN’T HELP…

And what can’t you help doing?…

The lyrics are here.

Useful vocabulary from the dong:

  • fools rush in – used for saying that people who are not sensible do things without thinking carefully about what may happen as a result: Wise men say only fools rush in. We can also add where angels fear to tread to the saying.
  • to be meant to be – if something is meant to be, it must happen, it is destined to happen: Some things are meant to be.
  • so it goes – that is life, such things happen: Darling, so it goes, some things are meant to be.

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